Check against delivery.


Mr Speaker,

Members of Parliament,


For some days now, there have been encouraging signs from the indicators we are using to track the development of the COVID­19 pandemic. We note that the average reproduction number, or R value, for the coronavirus has reached 0.8. In other words, each individual with COVID­19 infects on average 0.8 other people. That stands in contrast to an R value of 2 or 3 before the measures to reduce the spread of the virus were introduced. Moreover, since the start of this crisis, 9,800 of those admitted to hospital have been discharged. None of this would have been possible without the hard work of many of our fellow citizens, for which we would like to thank them.

However, we can’t ease up on our efforts now because we know that the situation is still very much hanging in the balance. We may let our guard down because we are tired or anxious, miss our friends and family or even because the weather is sunny, as we convince ourselves that it doesn’t really matter if we bend the lockdown rules a bit.

However, any action we take may have consequences for ourselves and our nearest and dearest. The health data show it: failure to comply with the measures generally results in an uptick in hospital admissions two weeks later.

Therefore, it is essential to continue complying with the measures. It is equally important to self-isolate immediately on experiencing the initial symptoms, while waiting for a doctor’s opinion.


As you know, last Wednesday the National Security Council decided to extend the general lockdown and social-distancing measures until 3 May while relaxing a few aspects to make everyday life under the lockdown more bearable.

The National Security Council will make a further decision tomorrow. The aim is to use the Exit Strategy Expert Group’s recommendations as a basis to draw up a phased roadmap for a gradual easing of the lockdown.

This plan must seek to strike an appropriate balance between protecting public health – not only physical but also mental and psychological – and providing education, kick-starting an economic recovery and, of course, safeguarding the welfare of society and protecting its most vulnerable members.

That means we will always prioritise the health of our fellow citizens. In this light, the health situation will be closely monitored, and this will determine when we move from one stage to the next. In other words – and we must be crystal clear about this – the measures may be tightened up again at any time. That is the rationale behind the work we are currently doing. If at some point the spread of the virus no longer appears to be under control, we will have to take a step back again – and let me tell you that is exactly what we will do.


We will have to rely on scientific expertise, while demonstrating a level of flexibility so that we can keep up as closely as possible with the situation on the ground. After all, our ability to predict the effects of a series of measures is limited. Therefore, we will have to move forward gradually, bit by bit, based on how the situation on the ground develops. That will be essential.

I know that a lot of information has been leaked to the press, which is unfortunate, given what is at stake. In the current context, this kind of behaviour not only demonstrates contempt for the work we are doing together – it also shows an astonishing lack of responsibility towards the public. Exiting the lockdown is a precarious business, and we can’t afford to confuse our message to the public.


As I have mentioned, the lockdown exit strategy requires a very deft touch. Not only has Belgium – fortunately – never had to devise this type of strategy before, but what’s more, the strategy affects every aspect of our society, encompassing the organisation of education and work, health, the opening (or otherwise) of shops and the organisation of our community life, and to some extent our private lives too.

These are all areas where the public, for understandable reasons, wants to have, as quickly as possible, not just an idea of where we might be heading but also firm assurances about future developments. But I should warn you now that while we can give you a rough outline of what might lie ahead, we can’t provide any cast-iron guarantees because the exit from the lockdown will be based on how the health situation develops.

As for the measures that will be taken regarding shops, we hope that each and every one of these businesses can benefit from a level playing field, having the same prospects of success as they resume their activities, regardless of their size or their line of work.

More generally, the federal government and the federated entities have adopted a series of measures to minimise the economic impact of this crisis for the public at large, and more specifically for working people and companies. The measures provided a partial response to the immediate and unprecedented consequences of this major economic hit. But of course, on their own they will not be enough.

In this light, the prospect of an easing of the lockdown will gradually allow the economy to get going again. That said, we are well aware that we will also have to support it with further measures – measures which will obviously be tailored to the exit from the lockdown, as the situation will evolve again.

Obviously, the National Security Council will be the forum where decisions will be made tomorrow on the next steps. And I would like to emphasise that we will only make those decisions in the National Security Council meeting at that time, so not in the press, not through leaks, and not in interviews. In other words, the National Security Council will decide, so it would be best to focus your attention on what comes out of that meeting.


More specifically as regards the recovery, I have previously made it clear that as this will involve decisions that will determine the long-term blueprint for our country’s economy, it would be best taken forward by a fully-fledged government commanding a parliamentary majority.


Three aspects will be absolutely central to the exit strategy: one of these will indeed be the wearing of face masks, and the others will be testing and tracing.

As regards face masks, we already know that they will play a vital role in the lockdown exit strategy. However, when it comes to this issue and the others, at this stage I can’t get into what positions will be adopted tomorrow in consultation with the federated entities. A decision will be made on this matter at the National Security Council meeting, attended by the minister-presidents of the federated entities, which are responsible for prevention policy. In any case, the same rule must apply throughout the country.

However, at federal level, we are working on giving citizens wishing to do so the means to protect themselves individually.

In this regard, we have taken careful note of the Risk Management Group reports and today’s Exit Strategy Expert Group memorandum, as well as the concerns of the various sectors and industries.

In addition, there is currently a large-scale effort going on at local level to produce cloth masks, thanks to civic initiatives that have emerged in recent weeks. This is just one good example of solidarity which is worth highlighting.


As there was also a question about testing, this is – as you know – being monitored constantly by the Risk Management Group, which will of course update testing procedures as the situation evolves.

Of course the aim is to be able to test as many people as possible, starting first and foremost with those who absolutely need it, so those with flu-like symptoms, hospital staff and patients, and staff and residents of nursing and care homes – and naturally the work doesn’t stop there because other groups also need testing. I believe that my colleague Maggie De Block will be coming back to this issue.


Let me turn now to tracing – and this will be my final point, Mr Speaker. While this is a regional competence, all the relevant initiatives must be effectively coordinated among the various entities. The federal government can of course provide support to help ensure success in this challenge.

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the possible development of an app. If all the regions endorsed such an app, the federal government would lend its support to such an initiative, certainly as far as the legislative framework is concerned. In such a scenario, this aspect will have to be debated in Parliament. My colleague Philippe De Backer will give you more details when he responds to a question about this.


Thank you.