Belgium is reintroducing strict lockdown measures in response to a worrying surge of new COVID-19 infections, with the government saying Wednesday that schools would close and residents would have limited access to non-essential businesses.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the virus variant first identified in Britain is taking a heavy toll on the health of the country's people: confirmed cases increased 40% over the last week, and hospital admissions rose 28% following a long stable period.
“It's difficult to take such a decision, and for many it will be a deception," De Croo said after an emergency meeting with regional leaders. “But I'm convinced that we are going to break this third wave."
Under the government's new order, schools and universities will no longer welcome students for in-person classes starting Monday, although kindergartens will remain open. The government's goal is to resume in-person teaching from April 19, after the Easter break.
“The largest number of infections is in the 10 to 19 age group,” De Croo said, noting that children and young adults who show no or few COVID-19 can infect parents and grandparents who become very sick and end up in the hospital.
A total of 22,763 people have died from coronavirus-related causes in Belgium, which was among the countries hit hardest when the pandemic emerged last year. About 1 million of Belgium's 11.5 million residents have received a first vaccine dose, and De Croo said the vaccination program in nursing homes had already helped reduce COVID-19 deaths.
Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said a recent sharp increase of COVID-19 patients in Belgium's intensive care units was worrying.
“We need to return to a simple rule: limit contacts," he said. “With the perspective to reopen our society in the coming months, with the absolute priority to reopen schools after Easter."
Under the new rules, which take effect on Wednesday night, non-essential shops can remain open but customers will need to book appointments to be allowed inside. Hairdressers and beauty parlors have to close again for four weeks, until April 25.
“It is anger and disgust! Both for non-essential businesses and for contact trades: Where are the numbers? It’s unacceptable," Olivier Mauen, spokesman for the independent businesses union, told public service broadcaster RTBF.
Teleworking remains mandatory, and the maximum number of adults permitted to gather outdoors is being reduced from 10 to four. Belgium's ban on non-essential travel outside the country will also remain in force over the Easter holidays.