As a precautionary measure, Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke advises the population not to use the textile mouth masks that the government itself has been distributing free of charge since the spring of last year. Not that they are so popular, because the majority is still in army storage areas.
What is it about? At the start of the corona pandemic, in the spring of 2020, the previous government, with Sophie Wilmès (MR) as prime minister, ordered 15 million fabric face masks from the Luxembourg company Avrox. These constituted the vast majority of the mouth masks that the government wanted to distribute to the Belgian population for free. Defense, with Philippe Goffin (photo) as the then MR minister, was the organizer of the order. But several other ministers, including Koen Geens (CD&V) and Philippe De Backer (Open Vld), were involved in the deal.
A controversial choice. The choice of the unknown Avrox was disputed from the start. Investigations by N-VA MP Michael Freilich showed that the order led to a Luxembourg mailbox of a Jordanian millionaire. Deliveries in May and June of 2020 also faltered several times, sparking strong criticism for Avrox and the government.
Pharmacists as distribution points. The approximately 4,800 pharmacists in our country have been called in since mid-June to distribute the mouth masks among the population.
Silver particles. Doubts quickly arose about the product itself last year. Three Belgian professional federations, including Creamoda, claimed that the millions of mouth masks were treated with an unnecessary and potentially harmful antibacterial technique based on silver ions. This allowed the users to inhale tiny silver particles, the analysis was. Avrox then called the criticism slander.
But this week, many months later, doubts are re-emerging. On Tuesday evening, a confidential report from the Superior Health Council on behalf of the government institute Sciensano leaked through the RTBF, which seems to confirm the danger of the silver particles.
Response Vandenbroucke. The cabinet of Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke (sp.a / Vooruit) came with a remarkable response on Wednesday evening. He advises citizens who have picked up a free face mask from Avrox not to use it for a while, pending further investigation. Or even: the government advises against using the mouth masks that it has distributed itself because of safety doubts. Vandenbroucke has nothing to do with the entire Avrox saga, which the De Croo government inherited from the Wilmès government. All ministers involved – from Goffin to Geens and De Backer to Vandenbroucke predecessor Maggie De Block (Open Vld) – are no longer members of the current federal government.
But are the masks actually used? A lucky thing in the event of an accident is that the perhaps toxic mouth masks are only used to a limited extent by the population. Many pharmacists have been stuck with boxes full of Avrox masks for months because their customers are not interested in them.
Of the 15 million fabric mouth masks that the Ministry of Defense ordered last year, no fewer than 10 million would not have been distributed, reports Belga news service. It concerns 3 million masks that are at the pharmacists and 7 million pieces in the army barracks of Peutie. If further investigation confirms that the masks are poisonous, then they are all unusable, as are the 5 million pieces in circulation.
And the price tag? The 15 million Avrox masks cost the government 2.5 euros each, for a total of 37.5 million euros.