Belgium has put the brakes on its coronavirus exit plan, unveiling a set of drastic social distancing measures aimed at avoiding a new general lockdown amid a surge of Covid-19 infections.
After an urgent meeting of the national security council, prime minister Sophie Wilmes said that from next Wednesday contacts outside every household will be limited to the same five people over the next four weeks, as the so-called “social bubble” now applies to a house and its occupants and not to individuals.
Belgian residents are currently allowed to meet 15 different people per week. The measures do not apply to children under the age of 12.
“Our aim is clear — avoid another full lockdown,” Ms Wilmes said.
She said the new measures — which also include lowering crowd limits at public events to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors — could be sufficient to avoid further restrictions and ensure children can return to school en masse in September, after the summer break.
Ms Wilmes urged people to get back to working remotely when possible – “one of the keys for a successful deconfinement”.
She added that shoppers should run errands alone and limit the time they spend in stores to 30 minutes. In addition, family or friends’ gatherings — including wedding receptions — will be limited to a maximum of 10 people.
“However, the most important approach is the individual one,” Ms Wilmes said. “If we cannot contain the coronavirus, it will be a collective failure.”
After a sharp decline in infections, Belgium has had a surge over the past three weeks. According to figures released on Monday, the number rose 71% from July 17-23 compared with the previous seven days, with 47% of cases in Antwerp province.
The number of cases also increased greatly in the rest of the country, with an average of 279 new daily cases and a 30% rise in the number of people admitted to hospital.
Ms Wilmes called on local authorities to take strong additional measures if the situation deteriorates in their cities.
“The urgency of the situation in Antwerp demands and requires strong measures to be taken quickly,” she said.
Brussels mayor Philippe Close announced the cancellation of the 140th edition of the city’s annual summer funfair, saying it was impossible on account of the latest health guidelines.
Belgium, a country with 11.5 million inhabitants, has been particularly hard hit by the virus, with more than 66,000 cases and 9,821 deaths.
The government had already tightened restrictions last week, making the use of face masks mandatory in crowded outdoor spaces while requiring bar and restaurant owners to register contact details of customers.