Corona in brief: Free rail pass, 500 volunteer for vaccine testing


There is good news – NMBS will give away free train travel – and there is bad news – people are starting to party by the hundreds in public space

Free train trips

Rail service NMBS is offering every Belgian resident aged 12 and over a free rail pass for 12 journeys, in order to boost domestic tourism following the coronavirus shutdown. Passes must be requested online starting at the beginning of August. Passes will then be sent to residents in the mail.

The free journeys can be claimed at a rate of two per month for six months, starting about mid-August to January. A return trip counts as two journeys. The pass cannot be used during weekends in August, to help limit overcrowding on popular summer routes, and will not be accepted on trains before 9.00 on weekdays.

In related news, NMBS has announced that bikes can travel free on trains from 1 July until the end of the year. Normally loading a bike on the train costs a €4 supplement (except for folding bikes, which are free).

Passengers must still print out a ticket for their bike, at no cost, to help the rail operator keep track of how popular the scheme is.

Corona vaccine testing

More than 400 people have signed up to take part in Janssen Pharmaceutica’s human clinical trial to test a vaccine against Covid-19. The trial is being carried out in Flanders and the US, where Janssen’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, is located.

Janssen now has enough volunteers in the 18-55 age group, but anyone interested can still sign up to be an alternate, in case other volunteers drop out of the trial, or to take part in the next testing phase. It is still seeking volunteers in the 65+ age group for phase 1.

Those chosen to take part in the study are paid: €60 for an initial blood test, €240 for completing the study, and €100 for every visit to the hospital in Merksem in-between. Candidates for the study, then, can potentially earn €1,500 in total.

The trial will begin next month and tests whether the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson will trigger the immune response required to fight the Covid-19 virus.

Police break up outdoor parties

Police had to break up crowds of partiers in Brussels last week and at the weekend, as young people took to the streets after events ended and bars closed. Coronavirus measures require bars to close by 1.00.

Last Thursday evening in Elsene, hundreds of bar-goers stayed in the neighbourhood around Flagey to party after the bars closed. The scene repeated itself on Saturday evening. A Brussels City-Elsene police spokesperson said that officers played cat and mouse with partygoers for “a good part of the night”. Police told revellers to move on, but “they just assembled elsewhere. Each time, the rules on physical distancing were not respected.”

In Anderlecht, meanwhile, about 500 people gathered in an empty industrial lot on Dantestraat on Saturday night. Following a day-time carnival-style parade, they held a big party, complete with bonfire.

“The participants split up after the carnival but gathered together again around midnight,” said Anderlecht mayor Fabrice Cumps (PS). “After a risk analysis carried out by police, it was agreed that it was better to let the party take place.”

Cumps said partygoers complied when they were later asked to leave. “We decided it was inappropriate to use force to disperse people,” he added.

Elsene mayor Christos Doulkeridis (Ecolo) said what happened at Flagey was “irresponsible for health reasons, and disrespectful to local residents”. He is “sounding the alarm,” he said, “because this phenomenon is going to multiply. It’s the start of the summer, it’s the end of exams, and the weather is nice. It's not acceptable for Flageyplein to become the biggest nightclub in the country.”

Haven’t they learned anything from the past few months?

- Marc Van Ranst

A similar phenomenon was seen in Hasselt at the weekend. “It was mostly young men who had had a bit too much to drink,” noted police spokesperson Dorien Baens. “Naturally it’s not exactly fun if you’re having a great night out to be told by the police at 1.00 to go home.”

Police in the capital of Limburg spend about two hours clearing groups of youth off the streets. The city’s mayor, Steven Vandeput (N-VA), reminded bar-goers that they’re lucky the bars are open at all. “The rules are there for a reason,” he said. “Those who think the rules don’t apply to them should consider the risk they are posing to other people. Everyone looked forward to being able to have a drink again, but the coronavirus has not disappeared. So it’s crucial that we keep the situation under control.”

Belgium’s national security council plans to meet on Wednesday and will discuss the issue. Virologist Marc Van Ranst said police needed to “act a little earlier” and anticipate illegal gatherings before they happen. He said of the partygoers involved: “Haven’t they learned anything from the past few months?”

Respect for social distancing plummets

As the above news suggests, respect for social distancing rules is in steep decline in Belgium. According to the latest poll by public health institute Sciensano, more than one in four of respondents said they no longer follow the 1.5-metre rule, compared with 12% during the previous study at the end of April.

Almost four in 10 people said they were not following the guidelines on social bubbles – namely a limit of seeing 10 people per week. The number of people not following the hygiene guidelines has grown from 14% to 18% since the last study. Young people were the most likely to say they did not follow the rules.

Photo, top: ©Laurie Dieffembacq/BELGA