Hospital admissions reached their peak in early April. On April 7, 5,759 beds were occupied by coronavirus patients; on April 8, 1,008 patients were on ventilators; and on April 9, 1,285 people were in intensive care, the highest number so far. On March 22, Belgium had 621 free intensive care beds, out of the 943 dedicated to Covid-19 patients (L'Echo, 2020). By mid-March, Belgium had 2,169 ventilators, which enabled the country’s hospitals to meet the growing demand. Intensive care capacity was expanded to 1,800 beds to manage the situation in mid-April.
However, Belgium has faced a shortage of protective equipment, in particular masks, gloves and gowns. Three million FFP2 masks were ordered from a Chinese producer at the end of March. These were found to be non-compliant and therefore unfit for use. A delivery of five million masks was cancelled because the supplier was "dishonest". To cope with the shortage of masks, Belgian authorities decided to put the country’s prison population to work; 32,500 masks have been produced so far.
A three-phase lockdown exit plan with strict testing and tracing conditions
The Belgian end of lockdown strategy consists of several phases, the implementation of which depends on the infection figures and the situation in hospitals. The country has thereby chosen to follow two strategies: on the one hand, a significant increase in testing and on the other hand, the tracing of infected persons.
Belgium carried out very few tests at the beginning of the health crisis, with only 3,930 tests performed in the first week. This was also due to the fact that there was no government in place before March 17 to manage the crisis. However, the country made significant efforts to increase its testing capacity. At the end of March, Belgium was carrying out 3,000 tests a day, reaching over 10,000 daily tests by mid-April and over 25,000 on 9 May, bringing the country closer to Germany's testing capacity. As a result, Belgium is now among the top 3 European countries in terms of testing. The switch to 25,000 daily PCR tests, the distribution of masks and a tracing method are the conditions imposed by the government to implement the lockdown exit measures, according to a report by the expert group for the exit strategy (GEES).
However, tracing is particularly complex because of Belgium's federal system, with eight ministers of health and competences spread between the federal and regional levels. For the time being, tracing is mainly done through call centers, which the regions are responsible for implementing. The method used, also known as "social bubbles", should help re-establish a limited social life while curbing the risks of spreading the virus. It requires each household to indicate 4 external persons with whom its members can come into contact. This measure should enable the tracing of the contamination chain, even if its correct application is virtually impossible to verify.
As is the case in many other European countries, Belgium has also discussed the potential introduction of a digital tracking application. Two draft royal decrees were submitted by Philippe de Backer, the Minister in charge of the Digital Agenda. These aim to regulate the use of tracing applications at the federal level as well as the creation of a citizens' health database within Sciensano, the national public health institute. However, the Data Protection Authority (APD) shared its concern regarding the legal framework of this proposal as well as data protection issues it raises.
Tensions and conflicts between the Flemish and Walloons were particularly strong during the discussions surrounding the lockdown exit plan. Flanders, Belgium’s richest region, was in favor of a quick opening of schools and businesses in order to reduce the crisis’ economic and educational impact. The differences between the Walloons and the Flemish are such that even the most local decisions can become a source of conflict. For example, the city of Brussels’ decision to create new cycle paths to relieve public transport congestion was interpreted as "anti-Flemish" by Theo Francken, the leader of the NV-A.