In October the world watched in alarm as Belgium’s Covid-19 cases grew out of control. The small country had the highest rate of infections in Europe, and hospitals were being overwhelmed. A series of contradictory new restrictions put in place by Belgium’s three federal regions were driving people to exasperation. “We’ve lost control,” the Belgian health minister Frank Vandenbroucke admitted.
But then the country’s new prime minister, Alexander De Croo, stepped in. He abandoned the regional approach and announced a second national lockdown on 30 October, closing down everything except essential stores, banning all home gatherings, mandating face masks and establishing night time curfews. These second lockdown conditions have since remained in place, almost entirely unchanged.
The effects of the lockdown can be clearly seen on the below graph of Belgium’s new Covid infections, which started a steep decline at the start of November and have now fallen closer to the low numbers seen during the summer. Over the past two weeks, 209 infections were confirmed per 100,000 inhabitants – a 30 per cent decrease compared to the two weeks before. Hospital admissions fell 14 per cent and deaths fell by 23 per cent.
Belgium is now at the lower end of Covid case rates among European countries. It’s a striking contrast with the UK, where cases in the last two weeks were 721 per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate that continues to rise.
The UK’s second national lockdown began just a few days after Belgium’s, but ended on 2 December and was replaced by a tiered regional system. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a relaxation of restrictions for Christmas, allowing three households to mix – even as other countries such as Italy were strengthening restrictions for the holiday period. Johnson next performed a U-turn on 19 December, restricting the planned Christmas relaxation to one day. On Monday (4 January) he announced a new, third national lockdown for England. For both U-turns, Johnson blamed the new, more infectious Covid variant and insisted “our collective efforts were working and would have continued to work” were it not for the new strain.
But many health experts are doubtful about this claim, and point to policy changes and inconsistent messaging as the bigger cause. “There’s been the narrative that the new strain found in south-east England in some of those tier two areas led to the growth, but if you look at other areas of tier two that didn’t have a high proportion of this new strain, they still had high rates of growth,” says Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, the vice-chair of the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health.
In London infection rates grew by nearly 75 per cent in the two weeks after Johnson ended the national lockdown, when the capital entered tier two. By contrast, in north-west England, which was under severe restrictions earlier than the rest of England, the increase was far less significant. “While the new strain having potentially higher transmissibility is worrying and important, the higher tiers with more restrictions have consistently seen lower growth rates than areas in lower tiers,” Pearson-Stuttard says.
Critics say Johnson has over-promised on returning to normality and that government policy has been plagued by wishful thinking. By contrast, De Croo made clear in late November that there would be no relaxation of the rules for Christmas. The only change to the lockdown has been the opening of non-essential shops in early December. When he announced the news, De Croo said that would be the only relaxation until mid-January at the earliest; restaurants, bars, gyms, theatres and hairdressers would remain closed at least until then.
He delivered a similarly tough message this past weekend, telling citizens that even though Belgium’s Covid-19 cases have fallen, the lockdown will likely endure until March because of the overall global context. There is concern that Belgium’s case decrease could slow or even reverse as people return from Christmas travel, particularly from the UK.
“If you want to go back to the hairdresser, stick to the rules,” De Croo told the Belgian paper De Zontag. “What I absolutely want to avoid is a yo-yo effect,” he said. “We’re doing this to avoid a third wave, because it will be even worse than the second.” Experts say such blunt talk prepared citizens for the reality of the months ahead. There was no fantasy of a return to normal by Christmas, and citizens have had time to mentally prepare for a bleak winter.
“The communication side is very important,” says Pearson-Stuttard. He fears that the UK’s last-minute decision to remove or reduce household mixing over Christmas “will impact on peoples’ emotional and social health, at a time when we need their good will to stick to these restrictions”.
De Croo also outlined a much slower timetable for vaccination than Johnson has announced in the UK. The British Prime Minister says the UK can get 14 million vulnerable people and front-line workers vaccinated in seven weeks. Critics say this may be over-promising and give people false hope that normal life will resume earlier than is realistic.
Belgium has outlined a timetable in which all vulnerable people and front-line workers will not be vaccinated until the spring, and De Croo has stressed that the vaccine will not end the pandemic in the short or medium term.
“The vaccines we administer now do not stop the spread of the virus,” he said. “Whoever gets the vaccine can no longer get sick themselves, but can still transmit the virus. People need to be aware of that. That’s why we can’t drop all the rules right away.”