Philippe De Backer is still minister 555 days after he announced his political farewell. He promised to stay until there is a new government, but it will be delayed. During the corona crisis, the Minister of Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Post was first a spectator. The worse it got, the more powers he got. With his task force he became responsible for developing a test strategy, looking for protection material and supporting the contact investigation. “The line is longer than my minister’s title,” smiles the Antwerper.
De Backer, director rather than politician of the big words, was able to indulge in the crisis. “My decision is made, I quit. I don’t care about all the games and I do what needs to be done, ‘he says. His scientific background – the liberal is a doctor of biotechnology – came in handy for his assignment. “It helps that you quickly understand when someone says unfeasible things, such as that every Belgian has to be tested weekly.” Although we should not exaggerate. “If you mix science and politics, you get politics.”
We thought we would be safe until autumn, but the second wave is already overtaking us. Was expanding the bubble to 15 people too much relaxation?
Philippe De Backer: “It is too easy. It always depends on a combination of factors. People have returned from holidays, laxity has arisen about hygiene measures and the number of social contacts has increased significantly. There were large weddings and other parties where the rules were not always respected. If everyone had followed the rules, the virus wouldn’t have spread as quickly. ”
“It doesn’t help that we are an urbanized country with a high population density. Someone who lives on one side of Belgium can work on the other. Compare that to the UK, where there was an uproar in Leicester. You can quarantine that city, because you only have pastures around it. That is much more difficult for us. Where does Antwerp stop? The city limits? Ekeren? Brasschaat? ”
De Backer has been Minister of Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Post since December 2018, when the N-VA disappeared from the federal government. Previously, he was Secretary of State for the Fight against Social Fraud, the North Sea and Privacy. The Antwerp citizen, a doctor of biotechnology, was chairman of Jong VLD between 2008 and 2010. In 2011 he ended up in the European Parliament, in which he sat until he became state secretary in 2016.
Isn’t politics also responsible? For example, contact tracing is still not perfect, so that not all contacts of infected persons are contacted.
De Backer: “We had hoped that summer would give us respite, but it is not. As a result, we have to replace the wheels of the Formula 1 car while we are driving. It is true that time is lost. Then through a stupid discussion of jurisdiction. I have started to investigate what role an app can play in contact tracing. It soon became clear that normal contact tracing would be more important. ”
“But based on that, the regions thought we would do that contact research. While we were not allowed to. The Council of State is clear: it is a regional competence. Moreover, only the regions have access to all personal data behind the test results of the scientific institute Sciensano. The complexity of our country did not help us at that time. Anyway, the system is now there. ”
Do you think so? It was raining testimonials from people who were contacted too late.
De Backer: “A delay can have several reasons. Time may be lost in transporting the tests to your doctor or between the labs, for example because there are many tests. We have set deadlines for this, which has saved us time. Sciensano sent the information about who was positive only once a day to the contact investigators, which now happens several times a day. ”
“Of course there are still some smaller things that can be done better. About 85 percent of people contacted pick up their phone. People visit the other 15 percent. About half of them enter. We still miss people that way. 5 to 6 percent do not pass on contacts. There is also some profit on that. But the most important thing for me is that case managers start doing cluster analysis and source detection faster. They have to find out how people got infected. ”
Privacy should never get in the way if you can save human lives.
The regions have still not started doing that.
De Backer: “That is a problem and it is not easy to solve. You don’t just find doctors who can do that. The regions must be creative. Time is running out.’
The contact investigation was also delayed due to privacy issues. Are they gone?
De Backer: ‘You really should not be allowed to throw away privacy and I am a big supporter of the European privacy regulation GDPR. But you are in a sanitary crisis and there are exceptions to that. Privacy should never get in the way if you can save human lives. You should be able to ask who and where people have been. All of this was suddenly questioned during the contact investigation. I never really understood why. The Data Protection Authority has always been very clear. As long as it concerns a temporary infrastructure, a lot is possible. When the crisis is over, all that data has to go. ”
With more and more people getting infected, there is a concern that we may not be able to test soon enough. How’s that going?
De Backer: “We are now running about 22,000 tests a day. This makes us one of the best in Europe, but we still have to take it up a notch. We should be able to go from Sciensano to 50,000 and some days to 70,000 tests by the fall when the flu season starts. The labs can handle up to 40,000 tests per day, the rest will have to be done by the government. We are looking for locations to add test streets. We are going to buy machines and the chemicals for testing ourselves. It is a gigantic logistics operation, in which we want to deploy students and nurses to relieve the GPs. ”
Partly due to the problems with the contact investigation, the picture has emerged that the Belgian approach is disastrous. Justly?
De Backer: ‘The Netherlands faces roughly the same problems as we do, but the debate is conducted in a much more business-like manner and I am a bit jealous of that. Everything is so emotional here. There is a constant stream of criticism, focusing only on what is going bad. The media has zoomed in very hard on the shortages of protective material. What is left of that? Besides the feeling among the population that politicians cannot do it? It’s easy, isn’t it: I went to explain in the Chamber that we had 3 million bad masks. We have not distributed them, so there has never been a public health hazard. Responded well, I think. But some say incompetent idiot. Fine. Everyone gets chatting during a crisis. The only way to keep it up is to be transparent. ”
Everyone gets chatting during a crisis. The only way to keep it up is to be transparent.
“Our hospitals held up during the first wave, we tested all the nursing home residents after the initial problems, and in two weeks we brought in large orders of protective equipment. We now have millions of masks in stock, so there will be no shortages. I think that is all okay, but an image has emerged that it is nothing. Regrettable.’
You shouldn’t be surprised if politicians constantly point at each other.
De Backer: (breed) “Skilled people who mean it well get stuck in the system. You may be able to rise above yourself by 100 percent, but not the 200 percent required in a crisis. Nine ministers who are responsible for welfare, that is really not workable. The complexity of this country makes it easy to pull out an umbrella. We haven’t seen some people. This applies to both official and political levels. ”
Are you talking about Wouter Beke (CD&V)?
De Backer: ‘I got into a controversy with Wouter and I really want to get rid of that. It’s about the system. I have some international experience and believe me: Belgian politicians should not be inferior to foreign ones. ‘
But besides the state structure, it doesn’t help that there is no real federal government. Everyone was opposed in this crisis, while this country must get a government as soon as possible that will look at our labor market and taxation in a businesslike manner. And that does something about the pain points that have been exposed during this crisis. We will not get there with a recovery plan alone. Reconciling right and left, can’t it be that difficult? Make a deal on necessary reforms and investments that are important, such as in healthcare, innovation and digitization. As it is now, it really can’t go any further. ”
The complexity of this country makes it easy to pull out an umbrella. We haven’t seen some people.
Why do you actually leave politics?
De Backer: “As a Member of the European Parliament and Federal Minister, I have held the two most beautiful mandates you can have. But I asked myself what I want to do over the next twenty years, and that was to return to the private sector. I could still function in politics. But I want to have more freedom and build something from it. During this crisis I was able to do that: with the task force I built a start-up in a week. Let me continue building start-ups and companies in private. ‘
Because something like this is no longer possible in our paralyzed and strategically dominated politics?
De Backer: (nods) “Although I’m not disgusted or resentful. I have no regrets because I would do everything again. I was able to build windmills at sea and made the roll-out of 5G in this country possible. But it’s time for something else. ”