Belgium likely to prolong restrictions as virus cases rise

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian health authorities warned Friday that the number of coronavirus infections is rising, probably due in part to the fast-spreading variant first found in Britain, as the government appeared set to prolong restrictions for several more weeks.

Figures released Friday showed that 2,294 new confirmed cases are appearing on average daily in Belgium, a rise of 24% over the previous 7-day period. However, the number of reported cases in care homes is dropping, and the COVID-19 death rate continues to decline.

“The rise in the number of infections, despite the number of tests decreasing, is a sign that the virus is circulating more,” said Steven Van Gucht, head of the viral diseases scientific service at the Belgian Scientific Institute of Public Health. “This could be due to the appearance of more contagious new variants, but also to less respect for restrictions.”

The institute estimated that more than half of new infections last week were caused by the variant first identified in the U.K., compared to 38% of cases over the previous seven, Van Gucht said. Belgium has also recorded cases of virus variants first found in South Africa and Brazil, but numbers are small.

More than 22,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million. Restrictions have been in place almost permanently since the start of November, including obligatory mask-wearing outdoors, night-time curfews, and limits on certain shops opening. Non-essential travel is also banned.

Belgian officials have been exhorting people to respect the restrictions, as warmer weather approaches and the effect of vaccinations slowly begin to take hold, even as rights groups challenge some of the measures and amid concern over the possible misuse of health data.

The Belgian government is meeting later Friday to weigh changes to the restrictions, including possibly opening some businesses that involve more person-to-person contact, like beauty salons. It will also consider increasing the number of friends or extended family that people can see.

But it appears unlikely the government will begin to open the country up in any significant way before April or even May. Models on the spread of the disease made public earlier this week suggest that any easing in March could spark a “third wave” of infections.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian lawmakers Thursday that the meeting comes “at a difficult time.”

“We have all smelled the perfume of spring and the perfume of freedom in recent days. But after a year of difficult measures, we realize that we should still continue to look after each other and protect ourselves from a rebound,” De Croo said.