Belgium extends COVID-19 lockdown until 3 May, but relaxes some measures

Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmes (C) attends a press conference following a National Security Council meeting on coronavirus in Brussels, Belgium. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Belgium’s National Security Council (CNS) on Wednesday (15 April) extended the coronavirus containment measures by two weeks until 3 May. Despite a very slow decline in numbers, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes warned it is to early to say when normality will be able to return.

When announcing the latest extension to 19 April, the CNS had said that pushing back the lockdown to 3 May was a possibility, while some experts had speculated before the meeting whether Belgium will follow the position of France, which has prolonged to 11 May.

The CNS, which brings together the prime minister, deputies, ministers, representatives of the federated entities, heads of the security services and scientists, was meant to evaluate the various emergency measures taken to fight against COVID-19, as well as their duration.

The Group of Experts in charge of the Exit Strategy (GEES), is examining how Belgium could be gradually released from the lockdown. An initial interim report on this matters was discussed by ministers on Tuesday.

“Even if the spread of the virus slows down, this crisis is not over. We must continue our efforts. This is why the Security Council has taken several further decisions,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes (MR) told reporters.

As of Wednesday there were 33,573 cases and 4,440 confirmed deaths, with 2,454 new positive cases and 283 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Belgium is now including confirmed corona deaths in hospitals together with deaths in care homes, which include suspected but unconfirmed COVID-19 cases.

However, Wilmes confirmed that the number of hospitalisations has been decreasing for some time, while the number of intensive care hospitalisations and the number of deaths remains high.

“The situation in nursing homes remains critical,” she added.

Extended and relaxed measures

At present, a ban on gathering is in place, while only essential movements are allowed. Non-essential shops are closed and school classes have been suspended and will remain so until 3 May.

The latest extension comes after Belgian media reports suggested that over the Easter weekend Belgians started being less observant of the lockdown measures, with transport companies noting a rise in suspected non-essential travel, and police reporting a rise in lockdown violations and fines issued.

Asked by reporters whether there is the intention to make changes with the amount of fines, she clarified there is no intention to increase sanctions.

However, there will be some relaxation of measures.

Some businesses such as DIY stores or garden centres will reopen this weekend, under the same social distancing conditions as shops that are already open, as the vast majority of sales are usually made between March and May, and leaving them closed would plunge the sector into deeper financial difficulties.

“This is not a relaxation of the basic measures. The rules must be respected,” Wilmes warned. “The police will continue to monitor the violations.”

Meanwhile, sports and cultural activities such as festivals will be prohibited until 31 August.

“There may be visits to nursing homes, care centres and to people with disabilities. This rule will also apply to isolated people. It is the same person who can visit,” Wilmes told reporters.

Deconfinement plans

“Today no one can say when we will have a normal life again. The road is still long and full of stones and pitfalls. But the prospects for a better future are within reach,” the prime minister said.

A National Security Council will be organised next week and the deconfinement measures will be evaluated. “It will be a gradual deconfinement,” Wilmes announced.

The exit strategy will be based on social distance, measures adapted to return to work, while wearing a mask will play an important role, added Wilmes

“The reopening of shops, cafes, travel, schools, internships, youth movements should be assessed in the next weeks,” Wilmes told reporters.

“We are aware that the measures taken will have serious long-term consequences, both psychologically and economically. We plead that the measures last as long as necessary”, Wilmes said.

“We must work step by step to avoid any upsurge in the epidemic. At this stage there is no vaccine or miracle cure for the coronavirus.”

France and Italy have both announced extensions to their current lockdowns, which are currently set to remain in place until 11 and 3 May, respectively, while several countries in Europe, such as Austria, Denmark and Poland have begun to loosen their own lockdown regulations.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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