Belgium relaxes coronavirus rules despite rise in cases

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Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes has said mask requirements, some attendance limits and other public health measures will be relaxed as part of a less stringent, long-term coronavirus strategy.

The move comes despite a steady rise in Covid-19 cases in a country already hard-hit by the virus.

Ms Wilmes said Belgiuans should learn to live with the disease but warned against a “widespread slackening” of the basic social distancing rules.

“We are in a risk-management phase,” she said after a National Security Council meeting.

“Some rules will be relaxed because they are no longer useful or tenable.”

Starting next month, Belgium will no longer require wearing a mask outdoors, except in crowded places where social distancing cannot be practised.

The government is also reducing the mandatory quarantine period from 14 days to one week for people with Covid-19 symptoms who eventually test negative for the virus.

While a maximum of 10 guests will remain the rule for private gatherings, parties or weddings hosted by professional organisers will not be subject to the limit.

“The virus is still there but life must continue in an adapted way to try to control this epidemic,” Ms Wilmes said.

The prime minister also announced everyone can now have close physical contact with up to five people from outside their households each month.

“They are people that you can hug, with whom you can eat or have a drink while being very close to each other,” she said.

Ms Wilmes’ announcement left leading Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst perplexed.

Belgium reported a daily average of 1,374 new confirmed virus cases during the week of September 13-19, while the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital also went up.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s certainly not time to relax,” he told Belgian broadcaster VRT.

“One does not need to be a great virologist to predict that the figures will continue to increase in the coming weeks.”

Ms Wilmes said Belgian authorities are working to devise an “epidemiological barometer”, a tool that would take a series of factors into account and be used to adapt virus control restrictions depending on the situation at national, regional and local levels.

In a move aimed at improving co-ordination with other EU countries, Belgium as of Friday no longer will prohibit travel to a destination classified as high risk for virus exposure.

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