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Coronavirus Belgium: ‘Outraged’ medics turn their backs in protest at PM’s handling of pandemic

Sophie Wilmès receives cold reception at Saint-Pierre Hospital in Brussels

Matt Mathers
Monday 18 May 2020 14:20 BST
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Coronavirus: Belgian hospital staff turn backs on PM Sophie Wilmès

Scores of medics turned their backs on Sophie Wilmès during a hospital visit in protest at the Belgian prime minister’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Wilmès made an unofficial visit at Saint-Pierre Hospital in the Marollen district of Brussels on Saturday in an attempt to relieve tensions with healthcare workers, who are unhappy with how the government is dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

In a video widely shared online, Wilmès’s official motorcade can be seen approaching the hospital. The road leading up to the hospital is lined with doctors and nurses, with each one slowly turning their backs in silent protest as Wilmès’s black Mercedes passes by.

Workers at the hospital staged the protest to call for increased acknowledgement of their efforts during the pandemic, which has so far claimed over 9,000 lives in Belgium, with a further 55,000 confirmed cases, according to official figures.

Belgium has the worst coronavirus mortality rate in the world, having recorded 66 deaths per 100,000 people.

For comparison, the mortality rate in the US is thought to be about 19 in 100,000.

Ms Wilmes said on Saturday that she wanted to bring a “message of appeasement” to hospital staff, according to Belgian broadcaster RTBF, adding that she did not want to see a post-coronavirus period where the nursing sector was “reduced to what it was before”.

The Belgian premier visited a second hospital on Saturday although she didn't appear to face any opposition while there.

It came after the signing into law of a royal decree on 4 May that allowed unqualified staff to undertake nursing duties during the pandemic.

Medics from over a dozen hospitals in Brussels and Wallonia – a region in the south of the country – have written to the government to express their concerns over the decree, the Brussels Times reported.

Nurses said they were “outraged” by the decree which was prepared by federal health minister Maggie De Block. Nurses are calling for the decree to be repealed, saying that it disregards the skill and training needed to work as a nurse.

The General Union of Belgian Nurses (GUBN) backed the calls from its members, casting doubt on a claim in the decree suggesting that nurses’ skills were easily transferrable to other healthcare professionals.

The GUBN earlier this month said that the decree amounted to “a real slap in the face” for health professions, saying that it undermined the work taken on during the crisis.

Officials are set to reopen markets, museums and schools this week following a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling the spread of the disease.

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