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Belgium’s government has been told by the European commission to “justify and explain” its decision to go further than EU advice in issuing a ban on all on non-essential travel in and out of the country.
Cross-border movement for tourism and recreation is to be prohibited from Wednesday as the country seeks to sustain the gains it has made in recent months since reversing one of the worst infection rates in Europe.
The Belgian travel ban, however, flies in the face of a European commission proposal on Monday in which the EU’s executive branch advised that freedom of movement should continue at the bloc’s internal borders.
Didier Reynders, a former Belgian minister who is now the EU’s justice commissioner, said the decision by Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, to act unilaterally by enforcing tighter controls at its borders would have to be debated by the other member states.
Reynders said non-essential travel between member states should only be “strongly discouraged” with testing and quarantine demands made on people coming from areas of the bloc where the new variants of coronavirus was prevalent.
“If certain member states would like to go further than the commission recommendation then we request from them an explanation and justification to show that it is not discriminatory [and is] necessary and proportionate,” Reynders said.
“We prefer coordination, that is the entire point of the work that we have been carrying out since the summer … Border closures will not help, common measures will.”
Belgium has had notable success in reducing the disease’s spread since 30 October, when a second national lockdown was implemented with no provisions made for a let-up over the Christmas period, unlike in the UK.
Only essential shops have remained open, just one visitor from outside a household has been permitted, face masks are mandatory and 10pm nighttime curfews have been strictly policed. Even indoor sports centres have been shuttered.
As a result, from being the European country with the highest rate of infections in September, when the Belgian health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, admitted the government had “lost control”, Belgium “is now one of the countries with the lowest contamination rate”, De Croo had said on Friday. “It is the proof that when one decides it, one can do great things in this country,” he added.
Schools in the Flemish and French speaking parts of the country have remained open since the start of the new school year, except in the event of outbreaks.
But in recent days there has been worrying evidence of a resurgence of the virus, feared in part to be caused by infected people returning to the country after the Christmas break.
De Croo had said in his televised press conference on Friday that Belgium’s suppression of the infection rate since autumn was at risk from the new variants of coronavirus identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
On Monday, the country’s public health institute said the average number of infections rose to 2,050.6 a day between 15 and 21 January, an increase of 2% from the previous seven-day period. There were 105 hospital admissions recorded in the last 24 hours, bringing the average new daily hospitalisations to 136.6, a 19% increase from the previous week.
According to random samples in Leuven and Liège, the UK strain is believed to account for 25% of new infections.
With another holiday week coming up in the middle of February, De Croo had said he needed to act. For the next four and a half weeks all tourism and travel for leisure and pleasure is to be banned. Business trips will be permitted and hauliers will continue to cross the borders, as will those who need to travel to funerals or other significant family reasons.
All travellers returning from the UK, Brazil and South Africa from Monday will have to take a test on the first and seventh day of their return to Belgium and observe a 10-day quarantine.
The government has said it could reopen hairdressers and beauty salons in mid-February if the infection rate is kept under control, although senior virologists have expressed doubt over the wisdom of any relaxation. There are also growing calls for schools to be shut.
The commission said in an attempt to keep the single market operating it would seek the support from the 27 member states for common rules on strong discouraging non-essential travel, with stricter rules applied to those coming from high-risk areas.
Travellers from the UK will be required to have a negative Covid-19 PCR test before departure, and submit proof, under the commission proposals. The test should be taken no more than 72 hours before departure. There will also be an obligation to quarantine for up to 14 days after arrival.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Belgium seeks to protect Covid gains as it rejects EU travel advice | Belgium