Steven Van Gucht: ‘Unfortunate timing to start just before autumn

Virologist Steven Van Gucht (Sciensano) calls the timing unfortunate to further reduce the mouth mask obligation. “We know there’s a potential fourth wave in October and November,” he says. ‘However, the mouth mask is a cheap and simple measure to build in extra safety.’

Yes, the vaccination rate in Flanders is high and can therefore afford a little more. Yet virologist Steven Van Gucht thinks it is a bad idea to further reduce the mouth mask obligation. The Consultation Committee decided to no longer oblige the mouth mask in the catering industry and in shops. The mask remains mandatory only on public transport, in healthcare institutions and for medical and non-medical contact professions – such as the hairdresser or doctor.

‘The timing is unfortunate,’ says Van Gucht. ‘The models teach us that there may be a fourth wave in the autumn. In October or November: it won’t be long. Then comes the real challenge. It is not a good idea to scale down that measure just before that. We should have waited a month or two longer.’

Absurd rules

Van Gucht realizes that some absurd rules, such as the obligation to wear a mouth mask when you go to the toilet in a cafe, has undermined support. ‘While it really does have its use in the store’, he says. ‘Just think of the bakery on Sunday morning. There are many customers close to each other. This has a major effect on customers and the baker. I have the feeling that the mouth mask has become a symbol file. It is presented too much as a deprivation of liberty. Of course it is not pleasant, but it is not that difficult now. It is a relatively simple and inexpensive measure to build in extra security. That way we can continue to do other things and protect the schools.’

Van Gucht calls it positive that Brussels and Wallonia are following a stricter line. They have decided to keep the mouth masks on in shops and cafes. ‘The situation in Brussels is much worse than in Flanders. Things are also going bad in Wallonia, especially in Liège. Fortunately, they do not participate in the bidding for relaxation.’

Marc Van Ranst would also have ‘preferred to wait another month’ to waive the mouth mask obligation, he said on Radio 1. you have to jump and that is what the government is doing now’, says Van Ranst. ‘You have to see that you keep a package of measures that is sufficiently large. This means that when you relax in one area, you have to tighten up in another area. How that package is put together is up to the government to decide.’

Molenberghs: ‘Nightlife reopen too early’

Steven Van Gucht understands the decision to reopen the nightlife – with a corona pass – but biostatistician Geert Molenberghs (KU Leuven/UHasselt) thinks it is actually too early. Also for Flanders. “The Covid Safe Ticket is not a complete guarantee to stop the circulation of the virus,” he says. ‘The Netherlands tried it in June and it ended badly. Now, if it can work anywhere, it’s with us, thanks to the high vaccination rate. But it remains a risk. Especially because vaccinated people can come into contact with unvaccinated people. It would be better to reserve certain events exclusively for vaccinated people. In this way, the risk of complications in those who do become infected is a lot smaller.’

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