Belgium set for phased easing of lockdown from May 4

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium plans to allow a gradual easing of coronavirus restriction measures from May 4, with a series of phases of further re-opening during the course of the month.

Restrictions in the country, among the hardest hit by COVID-19, currently just permit shops selling food, home improvement stores, garden centers and pharmacies to open, with most people only allowed to work from home.

Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes told a news conference after seven hours of discussions on Friday that Belgium could tighten restrictions or delay easing depending on the health situation.

“It is now time to look to the future,” she said. “But COVID has not disappeared, the virus is still with us and it is dangerous for the population. It is absolutely essential that the safety measures are respected during the phase-out period.”

Wilmes said Belgium would need to carry out 25,000-30,000 tests per day to withdraw from lockdown. Tracing of the contacts made by infected people would be carried out by a new team of 2,000 staff.

From May 4, more businesses will be allowed to reopen. People will also be allowed to meet up with two people not living with them as long as they are outside and keep a distance from each other.

Adults and children aged 12 or above will have to wear masks on public transport. To help, shops selling fabric or sewing supplies will reopen.

A week later, all shops will be allowed to reopen, under strict social distancing conditions.

In a further phase from May 18, schools will welcome back some pupils, but classes will be kept to a maximum size of 10. People will be able to host small gatherings at home, visit a museum and go to a hairdresser.

Cafes and restaurants and some tourist attractions will not open before June 8. Trips abroad or of more than one day will also not be allowed before then.

Belgium’s gradual easing of restrictions partly mirrors the actions of its neighbors. The Netherlands expects to reopen elementary schools from May 11. Germany has already allowed smaller shops to open, with schools due to restart from May 4.. In France, the lockdown lasts until May 11.

Belgium has 44,293 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6,679 fatalities, although more than half of the deaths have occurred in care homes and for 96% of them COVID-19 is only suspected rather than confirmed. Most countries do not include such deaths in their figures.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Marine Strauss; Editing by Daniel Wallis