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Coronavirus crisis – recovery plan

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

First of all, I would like to answer the specific questions regarding second homes and the third phase. After that, I will talk about the macroeconomic aspect of the recovery.

This week, virologists have once more confirmed that allowing members of the public to visit their second homes again would have no impact in terms of spreading COVID­19, and so we now see no reason to unnecessarily delay authorising this and are working on making this possible very soon.

However, I would like to point out that when we talk about second homes, we aren’t just referring to luxury villas. Of course, some people do have these, but many Belgians have a caravan and they too have the right to visit their second home without facing any discrimination for doing so.

So it would be good if we could stop bandying around all these clichés when talking about second homes. By ‘second homes’, we mean everybody’s second homes, whatever their size.

As for the third phase, yes, the idea is that it can start on 8 June, but we can’t bring that date forward at all. You might ask why. Well, because we need the intervening period to observe the impact of relaxing lockdown measures and to see whether or not we can continue down this path.

There are a lot of highly specific questions regarding very specific sectors and industries. We are also working with the regions and communities, depending on their relevant responsibilities, because culture and education, for example, are matters falling within the competence of the communities. We are doing our best to work together closely. Obviously, we will provide a response as soon as possible to those who are waiting for a lockdown exit plan for their specific sector.

Now, turning to the more macroeconomic issue of the recovery, both the Federal Planning Bureau and the National Bank anticipate a potential recession involving a contraction of 8% in the economy this year, probably followed by a fairly slow revival.

In managing the crisis, the government has also already taken a series of measures in consultation with the Group of Ten and the 10 party chairmen, initially aiming to support the purchasing power of working people, whether they are employees or self-employed. We have also made efforts to protect the health of businesses through various fiscal and parafiscal measures. These include:

  • entitlement to a replacement income and social security cover;
  • temporary unemployment due to force majeure;
  • the introduction of a temporary moratorium on insolvencies; and
  • bank guarantees to shore up the liquidity of our businesses.

In total, within just two months we have already made plans to inject €13 billion into our economy and provided €53 billion in bank guarantees.

This includes:

  • almost €5 billion for temporary unemployment and entitlement to a replacement income and social security cover;
  • €2.2 billion for provisions and measures for the healthcare sector;
  • €660 million for solvency issues;
  • €350 million for the deferral of self-employed workers’ social security contributions; and
  • €100 million for measures such as parental leave.

Although these measures did enable us to tackle the emergency we faced, we all know that additional measures will be needed to supplement them.

However, we should distinguish between, on the one hand, the urgent provision of support measures and, on the other hand, the recovery measures that will redraw the socioeconomic map of our country in the long run.

The impact of the COVID­19 crisis will be felt for a long time to come. Naturally, this will require us to make fundamental changes that will affect the whole of society.

Given the major challenges facing us, the necessary reforms simply cannot be implemented without a constructive political process.

Support for the economy and support for the recovery must of course complement one another, but the structural measures that will be required demand, I believe, an in-depth political debate underpinned by a very broad-based democratic mandate.

Two types of measures will be needed: first and foremost, cross-cutting measures to support the economy as a whole, and second, more targeted measures to help those in our economy who have been hit particularly hard by the crisis.

That second group obviously includes the most vulnerable members of our society.

Among the most severely affected sectors and industries, we also have in mind those which are still in lockdown because of the nature of their business and so will be coming out of it later. That means of course the hospitality and events industries and the cultural sector, but also tourism and air travel, to name, obviously, just some of those involved.

And yes, Mr Laaouej, this work must be done in consultation with Parliament and, of course, be undertaken as soon as possible.

In this connection, I’ve asked the Economic Risk Management Group to give us exact and up-to-date details of the economic situation, enabling us to draw on the most specific assessment.

Our measures must complement the support and recovery initiatives undertaken at European level.

The initiative announced by the French and German governments the day before yesterday with regard to a post-COVID­19 recovery plan is an important signal in this regard, as it will provide some momentum and will bring us closer to a common solution.

The proposal focuses in particular on research, the establishment of strategic stocks of medicines and medical products, the internal market and a recovery fund.

  • The recovery fund will be resourced by issuing securities on the financial markets and is intended to benefit the regions and sectors that have been hardest hit by the crisis.
  • Our preference is for a combination of loans and grants, since we believe that solidarity and responsibility go hand in hand and that we must strike the right balance.
  • There are still many grey areas that will need to be clarified, such as whether or not the resources provided will be reimbursed and the criteria that will determine which Member States and sectors will receive support.

The multiannual financial framework will also play a role in the recovery. From the information I have, the digital economy and the European Green Deal will remain the spearheads of Europe’s economic recovery.

Some consider that the discussions about the recovery should be the ideal opportunity to put in place a Belgian federal government commanding a parliamentary majority.

I too continue to firmly believe that, given the scale of the unprecedented crisis in our country, the sooner that goal is met, the sooner we can ensure that there are lasting and solid foundations for any decisions that need to be made.

Thank you.

The health sector

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Coming on to the situation in hospitals, the strike notice and the pictures of disgruntled staff at Saint-Pierre hospital, these were indeed powerful images, but the point they were making was just as powerful. In fact, their protest simply reflects the plight of nursing staff who have been working in a very difficult situation for several months now.

The coronavirus crisis exacerbated the day-to-day difficulties nurses were already facing before the outbreak.

We discussed these difficulties calmly and constructively, away from the cameras.

And that’s why I insist that all public statements, including, of course, those issued by members of this government, show respect and empathy. The severity of the situation and the anguish of nursing staff require this.

In this connection, I also had the opportunity, two days earlier, to speak with representatives of ‘Take care of care’ about the same issues. This encounter provided a chance for concerns from the field to be raised and for certain misunderstandings to be dispelled.

We have arranged to continue this dialogue in future.

I understand the dismay of nursing staff and the problems they face. I would therefore like us to respond to these quickly.

However, I want to emphasise that the latest figures suggest that Belgium remains one of the countries that invests most heavily in healthcare as a percentage of GNP, ranking fifth among the EU Member States and ninth among the OECD countries.

Properly valuing the work of healthcare professionals must nevertheless remain a priority. This doesn’t only mean a pay increase. It also means addressing the issue of working conditions and the availability of the protective equipment required to work safely.

I therefore asked Minister De Block to enter into consultations with the trade unions, and the first meeting, attended by Ministers Muylle and Clarinval, was held this morning: a dialogue in the truest sense of the word.

I hope that through these discussions we can quickly find ways forward and relevant solutions to the problems.

As for the special powers decrees on the requisitioning of healthcare staff and on nursing by unqualified healthcare staff, it was decided to suspend these with immediate effect. We have asked the 10 parties who agreed to these special powers decrees originally to permanently repeal them on Saturday.

I reiterate that both of these decrees were temporary, exceptional measures aiming to mobilise staff to, if necessary, help out teams who we know were tired and in need of support. They provided a legal framework which made it possible to ensure that hospitals and nursing homes could continue to operate and which we could have used if necessary, and only if necessary.

And I would like to remind parliamentarians who have expressed their surprise at the content of these special powers decrees and have been very critical of them that they were, for the most part, agreed to by their party chairmen. Timing is a different matter, I agree. But I would like us to at least have the intellectual sincerity to acknowledge that these arrangements had support at the time.

And as I have just said, these special powers are suspended with immediate effect and the expanded inner cabinet will decide this Saturday on their permanent repeal.

As you can see, we are mindful of and grateful for the vital work carried out by medical staff. The problems they face must be dealt with, and we are working on this.

Thank you.