Belgium has imposed a partial lockdown in a new bid to gain control of the pandemic that has hit the country worse than any other in the European Union.
As Covid-19 infections continued their record rise on Friday, the government moved to restrict travel and shopping.
Family contact will also be reduced to an absolute minimum of one person outside the closest cluster for the next six weeks, while remote work will be mandatory.
“We are going towards a reinforced confinement with only one goal: avoiding that health care services collapse,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, as he announced the measures.
“It is now in our hands, it is in your hands. These really are the last-chance measures and it is up to all of us to make sure that these measures produce a result.”
Hospitals and experts have long complained that Belgian measures were too lax over the summer, when the pandemic eased, and warned recently that unless there was a drastic lockdown the nation’s once-vaunted health system would soon face breaking point.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on Friday ranked Belgium as the worst affected nation in the 27-nation bloc, with 1,600 cases per 100,000 people. Hotspots like Spain and Italy have less than a third of that total, highlighting how acute the country’s crisis has become.
France, with proportionally fewer than half the cases, announced a second, full nationwide lockdown on Wednesday.
Belgium, however, will still allow people to travel to their hotel or secondary residence, often on the coast or in the verdant Ardennes hills.
The one-week school vacation which started Friday will be extended for an extra week.
After surpassing the spring record on Thursday, the number of hospital patients in Belgium, a nation of 11.5 million, broke the 6,000-mark and stood at 6,187, a rise of 263 in a day.
“Unfortunately, we cannot yet see the long-expected turnaround in figures,” said virologist Steven Van Gucht.
He added that the true total of infections is higher than reported because testing has been reduced for specific categories of people.
Patients in intensive care units on Friday reached 1,057 from 993 the day earlier, and virologists have warned that unless tougher measures have a quick impact the saturation point of 2,000 patients will be reached on November 6.