Belgium, with EU's worst COVID numbers, ducks full lockdown
Belgium stopped short on Friday of confining people to their homes but tightened restrictions on businesses and social life to avert a breakdown of the health system as the country records the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in Europe.
With the resurgent pandemic ravaging the continent, France and Germany announced new lockdowns, including tough restrictions on people's movement in the former. Other countries in the 27-nation European Union are also curbing daily lives.
Belgium, home to the EU's headquarters and NATO, announced tighter restrictions on social contacts and the closure for six weeks from Monday of businesses like hairdressers and shops which provide services not considered essential. It also extended November school holidays by an extra week.
Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the country of 11 million people otherwise faced a breakdown of its health system.
"We are moving in the direction of reinforced confinement with a single objective: to prevent health care from creaking under pressure that is already immense today," de Croo told a news conference.
"These are the last-chance measures."
But de Croo did not order a full repeat of the spring lockdown even though Belgium's COVID-19 numbers are the worst in the EU, Britain and four more associated countries in Europe.
In the second half of October, Belgium reported an average of 1,600 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice as many as in France.
It also has one of Europe's highest mortality rates, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The latest spike in confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus takes the total number of infections since the beginning of the outbreak to 392,258 in Belgium, according to data from the Sciensano health institute.
This month the country has already put in place a night curfew and closed bars, restaurants, gyms and cultural spaces. But a patchwork of disjointed measures adopted by Belgium's regions, which have broad powers, in addition to federal action has caused confusion.
Hospital admissions dipped slightly on Thursday to 673, from 743 patients hospitalised with the virus the day before, but the level is still above the peak of the pandemic's first wave, Sciensano figures showed.