Check against delivery


Mr Speaker,


Inside this chamber and beyond, all of us realise the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe impact it is having.

Obviously, first and foremost there is the effect on the health of our fellow citizens.

But the virus has also completely transformed our daily lives, our social interactions and the vitality of our economy.

In these challenging times, the government is, and will remain, fully committed to protecting the public.

Nor is the government alone in this endeavour.

I am thinking, of course, of all the other levels of government who are working, within their competence, on managing this crisis.

Like you, Mr Gilkinet, I also have in mind:

–             the healthcare staff who are showing extraordinary dedication despite the stress and fatigue they are experiencing;

–             also the police, who are enforcing the government’s measures in difficult circumstances; and

–             more generally, all those who are working to keep our country running.

The whole country thanks them for their courage and professionalism. I know that each and every one of you is concerned about this situation.

Unfortunately, the constant backdrop for all these worthy efforts is the harsh reality of the health situation.

We talked about it again today, as we do every morning, and the death toll now sadly stands at 1,011. Crucially, I would like to take this opportunity, however brief and however fleeting, to express our sincere condolences to each and every individual who has lost a loved one. We know the extreme gravity of the situation.

Indeed, every morning the experts tell us about the difficult health situation. They have also said that our efforts are starting to pay off, that the spread of the virus is slowing. And naturally that is encouraging. But at the start of what is forecast to be a sunny weekend, I would also like to remind everyone that this is not the time to let up on our efforts. We know this is difficult. We know this is requiring a great deal of effort from each and every one of us, from our parents, from our children and from ourselves as well.

But I really must emphasise that it is perhaps just when we see these efforts paying off that we must try even harder to keep them going. This is vital for everyone’s health.

As for the situation in hospitals, you will be aware that every day an analysis is made of the number of beds in comparison with the number of beds available, with a view to avoiding hospitals becoming saturated.

So-called ‘critical’ thresholds have been introduced to ensure, upstream, an optimal distribution of patients among hospitals and therefore avoid such saturation.

This redistribution is still possible because overall, according to the latest figures I have received, occupancy rates for intensive-care beds currently stand at 52% nationwide.

Ms Fonck, you mentioned the very difficult situation facing nursing homes. While hospitals are working on increasing the number of available intensive-care beds, we are involved in efforts with the governments of the regions to create additional capacity elsewhere to accommodate people being discharged from hospital who are not yet well enough to return immediately to a nursing home or for those who have to stay in isolation. Therefore, such capacity is indeed being expanded and we are obviously supporting the regions’ efforts to this end, given our nationwide fight against the coronavirus. We must unleash all the forces that each and every one of us can deploy.

Of course, the question of the supply of medical equipment remains a key concern.

As you know, our colleague Philippe De Backer was tasked with taking charge of this significant challenge. He is spending all his time dealing with it – it is his top priority. We are talking here not only about medical equipment but also testing equipment. The key is not only to supply equipment but obviously to ensure it has been approved. Speeding up procedures and also coordination are vital, and as you will be aware, we are working on this.

As regards the use of masks by individual members of the public, I understand their desire to protect themselves from the coronavirus as far as possible. And this is a legitimate concern.

However, according to the World Health Organisation, masks must be reserved for the use of those suffering from the condition and of medical staff, and our experts share this opinion.

Besides, to be clear, even if the whole population were to be advised to wear a mask, this would not be feasible at the moment. Remember, there is a global market shortage: a shortage worldwide, not just in Belgium. That is why the Risk Management Group has drawn up a user priority list. The top priority for the supply of equipment must, of course, be the medical staff exposed to the proven risks of COVID-19.

In view of all these factors, we realise that we must also expand our domestic production capacity as much as possible. This will not happen overnight.

That is why this week I convened a meeting between the inner cabinet and the Belgian textile sector to look at how we could get Belgian initiatives up and running as quickly as possible. These consultations, commitments and initiatives will unfold under the supervision of Minister Koen Geens.

You should know too that we have brought together Belgium’s biopharmaceutical market players to also coordinate and boost research and production initiatives in the areas of most interest to us at the moment, namely the fight against the coronavirus.

The health aspect of the crisis is indeed our priority, but that does not mean that we are forgetting about the socio-economic consequences of this crisis, which – as I have said previously – already are, and will be, far-reaching.

We are tackling these head on. To recap, on 20 March the second part of the Federal Social and Economic Protection Plan was approved.

A series of measures was adopted to safeguard working people’s purchasing power and support businesses and the self-employed. These measures were explained to you in plenary last Thursday.

Of course, the work does not end there. The inner cabinet is keeping a close eye on the reports coming back from the field and with this in mind we are working with not only the Economic Risk Management Group but also the G10. In this context, a third part of the Federal Social and Economic Protection Plan is currently being looked at, with the purpose of providing further support to working people.

So we know that unfortunately the effects of the crisis are expected to be felt for a long time. That is why we must already start working on an exit strategy for this crisis.

To this end, I am in the process of bringing together a high-level expert group to develop a strategic vision for the gradual easing of the restrictions. This group will be made up of both leading members of the scientific community – especially health experts – and figures from the world of business and the social arena.

As you know, on 27 March the National Security Council decided to extend the current measures until 19 April, with a further extension possible, if necessary, until 3 May. These decisions are taken collectively with the regions, although each of these retains in full all of its prerogatives within its areas of competence.

Therefore, any resumption of activities will obviously take place gradually and within the framework proposed by the high-level experts in this body, which will be chaired by a scientist because – and I would like to reiterate this – health will be our top priority.

As regards the management of the crisis at European level, on 26 March I participated by video link in a meeting of the European Council where we focused on the issue of border management, creating a European overview of available stocks and production and import capacities and rolling out Europe-wide research efforts.

We also asked the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission to work on an exit strategy at European level and an economic recovery plan.

Ahead of this EU summit, I was contacted with a request to support an initiative being put forward by a number of Member States. In this context, we wrote a joint letter to Charles Michel, the President of the European Council.

This letter covered multiple subjects, among them the exchange of information on the spread of the virus, the internal borders issue, and the need for flexibility with regard to European budget rules.

These topics also included the economic situation. No call was issued for the launch of so-called ‘coronabonds’. Instead, we stated that we should start working, among other things, on the introduction of a common debt instrument.

Belgium’s position here is by no means new as our country has always said that it is open to discussing a partial pooling of debts as long as this is subject to certain conditions.

In any event, Belgium will not be involved in such an instrument unconditionally. In this light, a real effort must be made in this area to identify the advantages and limitations of such an instrument and so be able to assess, with full knowledge of the facts, the advisability of deploying it within the European Union.

Turning to the rest of your question, Mr Loones, Europe must of course always try to help those who need it most. That is the case not only for Europe but also for everyone, I think. That goes for our country too and for each of us as individuals. And I am sure that Belgium will always support this type of approach.

Thank you.