Belgium declared a lockdown for the entire country over the coronavirus crisis from noon on Wednesday (18 March) until 5 April, following the example of several European countries, including neighbouring France, which took the same decision earlier this week.
According to the announced “far-reaching measures”, there will be no total lockdown, but public life will be severely curtailed, including through a ban on gatherings.
The decision taken by Belgium’s National Security Council (CNS) on Tuesday comes only hours after the new emergency government of Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes was sworn in by the country’s sovereign, King Philippe.
This CNS, bringing together the prime minister, deputies, ministers, representatives of the federated entities and the heads of the security services, discussed the latest report made by experts in the Risk Management Group after Wilmes addressed the parliament.
Speaking at the press conference after the meeting, Wilmes announced the lockdown is set to start on Wednesday (17 March) and run until 5 April.
Wilmes could not confirm that this is the final scenario but said the situation will be re-assessed when this period ends and next steps decided.
Belgian police will be responsible for strictly enforcing this confinement.
Wilmes urged the population to stay at home. People will be allowed to go out in an emergency or to a supermarket, pharmacies and doctors. Any gatherings and meetings are prohibited.
No closure of borders, supermarkets remain open
Contrary to previous speculation, the country’s borders are not closing, Wilmès confirmed to reporters.
She referred to measures already taken by the EU to close its external Schengen borders, as previously communicated by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (17 March) and approved by EU leaders in a teleconference on Tuesday (18 March) night.
Travel abroad deemed non-essential will be prohibited until the end of the lockdown too. Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines announced Tuesday (18 March) it will not fly any planes between Saturday (21 March ) and 19 April.
All non-essential stores will be closed while food stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, newsagents and banks will remain open.
Access to supermarkets is limited to one person per 10 square meters and a duration of 30 minutes per customer.
“People should stay at home to avoid social contact with the outside world and should only travel for essentials,” Wilmes announced.
Citizens will still be allowed to go to work, in cases where working remotely is not possible, but working from home “must become the norm” and businesses are called upon to organise telework for all professions where this is possible.
Companies may receive a heavy fine in the event of non-compliance, or even be closed for a repeat offence.
While the rules for educational institutions remain the same, childcare will still be provided, especially for children of people who work in the care sector.
There will also be a ban on gathering, to which only families will be an exception.
Outdoor sports activities, such as walking, jogging or cycling, are allowed, but if there are two persons involved, the accompanying person must be someone who lives under the same roof. Care should be taken to maintain 1.5m distance from other people.
Public transport will continue, but will also have to guarantee social distancing.
Wilmes: ‘Respect the rules’
In countries where the rules are not respected, there are more infections and hospitals may exceed their capacity. These rules are there to protect the population, Wilmes said.
“Respect the rules – you are part of a system,” the prime minister said and added:
“It is essential that social distancing does not stand for social disconnection… It is difficult, but thanks to technology, it is possible. Take good care of yourself and make sure your loved ones feel good..
After the Wilmès government was given powers of attorney to deal with the crisis on Sunday (15 March), it is expected all newly announced measures will apply equally to all regions.
Belgium’s health minister Maggie De Block (Open VLD) told local media after the meeting that tightening measures come at a “crucial moment” and are necessary to “flatten the curve” so that the number of patients does not rise too strongly and overburdens the healthcare system.
However, critics suggested there might be still too many exemptions from the lockdown measures.
“Strict measures had already been announced [on 12 March], but all weekend there were problems with people who did not comply. The measures therefore did not bear fruit as the epidemic continues,” virologist Erika Vlieghe told VRT Niews.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]