Since Thursday 12 March 2020, Belgium has been in the “federal phase of crisis management”. When the National Security Council takes policy decisions, the various interministerial, interdepartmental and interregional crisis units concretise these decisions, coordinated by a Federal Coordination Committee. The following is a glimpse into and behind the scenes of the National Crisis Centre (NCCN) where many people are working hard to achieve a successful outcome.
Consultations between public health actors
Since January 2020 and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, three bodies have come together to ensure that the health situation is monitored:
The Risk Assessment Group (RAG) analyses the risk to the public based on epidemiological and scientific data. The group is chaired by Sciensano and is made up of experts from Sciensano and the health authorities.
The Risk Management Group (RMG) takes measures to protect public health, based on the advice of the RAG. This group is chaired by the FPS Public Health and is made up of representatives of the health authorities, both from the federal state and the federated entities.
The Scientific Committee for Coronavirus assists the health authorities in controlling the coronavirus. The Committee provides scientific advice on the evolution of the virus and helps ensure our country is optimally prepared for the spread of this new pulmonary virus.
Since the start of the federal phase, these bodies have provided advice to an “Evaluation Unit” (CELEVAL). The cell is chaired by the FPS Public Health and is made up of representatives of Sciensano, the committee set up for COVID-19, the Superior Health Council, the administrations responsible for public health at the level of the Regions and Communities, and the FPS Home Affairs and Mobility. It advises the authorities on matters of public health, so they can take decisions to tackle the pandemic.
** Specific cells to prepare and concretise the decisions**
Given the major impact of this pandemic on the entire socio-economic fabric, various crisis units have been put together to operationalise the crisis management:
The Operational Unit, coordinated by the NCCN. Via the on-call service (24/7), this unit facilitates the flow of information between the authorities, ensures that the crisis infrastructures are fully operational, and guarantees that the crisis units will be alerted if necessary.
The Socio-economic Unit is chaired by the FPS Economy and is made up of representatives of the Ministers for the Economy, Employment and Public Health and for SMEs, as well as from the FPS Economy, Employment, and Labour, Mobility, Social Security and from the Government Department (POD) Social Integration. It carries out analyses and provides advice on the socio-economic impact of the measures already taken or that will be taken.
The Information Unit is jointly chaired by the FPS Public Health and the NCCN. It ensures the coordination of all local, regional, community and federal authorities so that the crisis communication strategies and actions are coherent. It provides strategic advice to the competent authorities by basing its actions on the identified information needs of the public.
The Legal Units are responsible for drafting the legal texts and providing answers to various legal questions raised in the context of this complex crisis management.
The International Unit facilitates the flow of information at European level between the equivalent crisis management authorities.
The Task Force Integrated Police coordinates the actions of the police services. Other units have been activated to answer various frequently asked questions, and to verify the translations of the published texts.
Since Thursday 19 March, the Economic Risk Management Group (ERMG) has also been operational to manage the economic and macroeconomic risks associated with the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Belgium.
Strategic and policy-making bodies for decision-making
Since the start of this pandemic, the political authorities have taken decisions based on the recommendations of the health experts in this field.
The National Security Council (NSC), which essentially consists of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Ministers, has been extended to include the Ministers-President of the Regions and Communities. This collegiate body takes the policy decisions for managing the crisis.
The Federal Coordination Committee (COFECO) is chaired by the NCCN. Management of the medical aspects is specifically coordinated by the FPS Public Health (hospital capacity, personal protective equipment, testing, etc.). COFECO is made up of the Chair of the RMG and representatives of the Prime Minister, the Federal Ministers for Home Affairs, Justice, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Public Health, Budget, Mobility, Defence, Employment and Labour, as well as the Ministers-President of the Regions and Communities. The following administrations are also represented: the FPSs Public Health, Mobility, Economy and Defence as well as the regional crisis centres and the federal police. The committee prepares and coordinates the implementation of the policy decisions of the NSC at strategic level.
To operationalise these strategic and policy decisions, consultations are organised with the Provincial Governors, the Senior Official of Brussels and the Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, so that they in turn can coordinate actions at municipal level.
Health authority experts are constantly developing procedures for health professionals. They know how to quickly identify a patient who may be infected by the coronavirus and what to do in this case. Several laboratories can quickly identify the virus. All hospitals in our country know how to treat patients infected by the coronavirus in safe conditions.
Steven Van Gucht is the President of the Scientific Committee and works as head of the Department of Viral Diseases at Sciensano, the Belgian Institute of Public Health. He is a virologist specialised in emerging viruses and zoonoses that are communicable from animals to humans.
Marc Van Ranst is an MD, virologist and epidemiologist. He is head of the lab at Leuven University that tests people for potential coronavirus. This lab is the national reference laboratory for the coronavirus.
Nathalie Bossuyt is an MD and epidemiologist. She is responsible for the surveillance of respiratory infections at the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases Department at Sciensano, the Belgian Institute of Public Health. This department closely monitors the spread of the coronavirus.
Erika Vlieghe is head of the Department of General Internal Medicine, Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at the University Hospital of Antwerp (UZA), one of the reference hospitals for the coronavirus. She is a member of the Scientific Committee due to her expertise in infectious diseases research and clinical care of patients.
Charlotte Martin is an infectiologist and clinical director ad interim at the Saint Peter’s Hospital in Brussels, referral centre for emerging highly contagious diseases. If a case of coronavirus emerges in Belgium, the patient will be taken tot that hospital where dr. Charlotte Martin and her team are on standby.