Belgium will make mask wearing mandatory for children over the age of 6, close kindergartens and primary schools from December 20 and shift secondary schools to a hybrid schedule to fight a coronavirus wave that has stretched hospitals to the limit.
The Consultative Committee, responsible for pandemic management policies, convened Friday for the third time in three weeks after Belgian hospitals, overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, temporarily suspended all nonurgent treatment. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, speaking after the meeting, called the situation “untenable.”
The heart of the matter lay in “stopping the engine” of viral transmission among children, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a press conference.
Where mask wearing is already mandatory for adults, this will now apply for all children over the age of 6, including at school. Kindergartens and primary schools will close as of December 20 — breaking a few days earlier for the year-end holidays than scheduled.
Secondary schools will move to a hybrid schedule, with examinations in person. Classrooms will be fitted with carbon dioxide monitors with ventilation guidelines, with in-class teaching being halted if two or more students are infected by the virus. Parents are also encouraged to regularly test their children at home.
These measures follow a report by the EU’s agency for infectious disease control urging the vaccination of children, especially those at risk of severe disease, in part to help avert school closures. Last week, the European Medicines Agency recommended the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine be approved for children 5-11.
Vandenbroucke told reporters he had signed an agreement with BioNTech and Pfizer for the delivery of 336,000 children’s doses by the end of the month. These would be made available as soon it is approved for the age group in Belgium.
Despite an earlier call by an expert advisory panel for the hospitality industry to close earlier, at 8 p.m., restaurants, bars and hotels will continue to be allowed to stay open until 11 p.m.
Indoor public events hosting more than 4,000 will be banned from Saturday. Indoor events with up to 200 people can continue as of Monday, so long as all are seated and masked. For events attended by more than 50 people, guests will have to show a valid Covid Safe Ticket that shows a holder is vaccinated, recovered or has tested negative for COVID-19.
Teleworking will continue with a maximum of one day per week in-person attendance.
All indoor gatherings are banned except for weddings, funerals, sports and private functions at home. Indoor sport competitions are allowed without an audience. While the committee did not recommend reinstating so-called bubbles, it advised limiting social contact and to use home testing kits. There are no clear restrictions on public outdoor events, the Committee stating that event organizers are responsible for crowd control.
The announcement comes as Belgium’s hospitals struggle to cope with a fourth wave of the coronavirus. Hospitals canceled all nonurgent care for two weeks to care for more than 3,700 COVID-19 patients, with more than 800 requiring intensive care. More than 200 hospital beds are also closed due to staff shortages, De Croo told parliament Thursday.
The Consultative Committee is expected to reconvene in the week of December 20.