Coronavirus: Belgium enters nation-wide shutdown from noon

Coronavirus: Belgium enters nation-wide shutdown from noon
All gatherings are banned, non-essential travel is prohibited and remote work the new normal as Belgium shuts down public life to slow down the coronavirus pandemic. © Belga

Eleven million more people will go into lockdown from Wednesday noon, as Belgium becomes the latest country in the EU to force public life to shut down to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Referred to as "necessary sacrifice," the new measures are the most drastic ones taken by the National Security Council to date, and come days after France imposed a 15-day lockdown as well.

Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said the new rules were "indispensable" to preserve public health, given the "seriousness of the situation," according to an online statement.

The lockdown in Belgium comes as the new coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to send infection numbers soaring in Europe, where the first reported case of the virus was detected in France on 15 February and as Italian and Spanish health services buckle under a wave of hospitalisations.

Public life curtailed at noon

From noon and until 5 April, residents in Belgium will only be allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons, such as food shopping, health-related errands or assisting someone in need.

All non-essential travel abroad will be prohibited until 5 April, although Wilmès said that Belgium would not close its borders within the EU.

In a step up from previous measures, a ban on all gatherings was introduced, with police deployed on the streets to monitor and enforce residents to comply.

"We had no other choice, people have to stay at home," Interior Minister Pieter De Crem said after the announcement of the measures, which came after the number of cases in Belgium rose to 1,243 on Tuesday, a number which a government virologist stressed was "an underestimation."

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Unlike stricter measures imposed in Spain's coronavirus lockdown, outdoor physical activity will be allowed and is even "recommended," provided that it is done alone, with living mates or with "one friend," according to the prime minister's website.

"Outings of families living under the same roof are authorised but it is important to keep a reasonable distance between each other," the statement read.

"But respect the rules. You are part of a system. In countries where the rules are not respected, there are more infections and hospitals may exceed their capacity," Wilmès told reporters.

Companies must make telework the norm

All companies, regardless of their size and "with no exception" must allow teleworking or take the necessary steps to ensure social distancing rules are "scrupulously followed," where teleworking is not an option, with those failing to comply risking a fine and even being ordered to close down for good.

All non-essential shops must shutter, with only food shops, banks, pharmacies, animal food stores and newspaper shops allowed to remain open.

Supermarkets must ensure that one customer stays no longer than 30 minutes inside the store and ensure that there is only one person per ten square meters.

Previously allowed to remain open, food markets will have to close down, while nightshops will no longer be allowed to stay open through the night and must close at 10:00 PM at the latest.

Public transport will continue running, despite several companies announcing a scale back in services, but social distancing measures must continue to be observed.

The enactment of the new measures come only hours after the Wilmès was sworn in as head of government, in a move aiming to give her caretaker cabinet full powers to deal with the public health crisis.

It also comes after all EU27 governments agreed to shut down the bloc's external borders, a decision which comes against the backdrop of urgent calls by the World Health Organisation for Europe to drastically ramp up action against the virus.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that book shops were among the essential shops that were allowed to remain open. 

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