BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium postponed a further easing of rules on social gatherings on Wednesday after an uptick in the number of coronavirus infections, and the prime minister said she could not rule out the reintroduction of lockdowns in areas worst affected.
Sophie Wilmes told a news conference that the reproduction rate of COVID-19 infections had risen above 1 once more, indicating that the virus was again spreading exponentially in the country.
"This means that the epidemic is getting worse, gaining strength, even if it is still limited right now," she told a news conference after a meeting to decide on next steps. "But it is not good and we are monitoring the situation very closely."
Belgium reined in the virus by imposing a strict lockdown, and on Tuesday it reported zero new COVID-related deaths over the previous 24 hours for the first time since March 10.
The total number of deaths reported by the national public health institute Sciensano stood at 9,788 on Wednesday. In a country of 11.5 million, that works out to around 850 deaths per million, the highest rate in the world apart from the tiny city state of San Marino.
Lockdown measures imposed in March have been eased with the flattening curve of confirmed infections, which stand at 62,872.
However, the daily average of new cases in the last seven days was 96, up 8% from the previous week, Sciensano said.
Wilmes said a rule limiting people to meeting a maximum of 15 friends per week still applied and - noting that the infection rate was highest among young people - said a ban would remain on nightclubs and other "super-spreader" gatherings.
(Reporting by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson)