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Belgium announces new restrictions in response to Omicron spread

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Belgium on Wednesday announced a flurry of closures in a bid to reopen schools after the Christmas holidays and ease tension on the health care system, as Omicron variant cases of coronavirus doubled over the past two days.

“For the past three weeks, our country has been undergoing a series of fairly stable measures aimed at combating the variant Delta. These measures are having an effect — the indicators are falling,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “But despite these positive numbers, there is a concern about the Omicron variant. … This variant is spreading faster than the Delta,” he warned.

Indoor venues such as cinemas, theaters, concert halls and conferences will have to close their doors as of Sunday, and public access to stadiums, sporting events and outdoor venues under tents will be banned. Outdoor Christmas markets can stay open with restrictions on capacity, but amusement parks will be required to close. But museums, libraries and sports facilities will be allowed to remain open.

Also, people will be allowed to go shopping only in pairs, excluding children.

“We are aware of the harshness of these measures; we know that it hurts. After a year of hard work, after a year in which many Belgians decided to get vaccinated, we would have liked a different Christmas,” De Croo acknowledged. “But let’s think about last year’s Christmas: The restaurants were closed, there was a bubble … That’s not the case this year.”

Despite an earlier call by an expert advisory panel for the hospitality industry to close earlier, at 8 p.m., restaurants and bars will continue to be allowed to stay open until 11 p.m. Teleworking will continue with a maximum of one day per week in-person attendance.

The Consultative Committee, responsible for pandemic management policies, convened Wednesday as the government’s experts worried the Omicron variant would soon become dominant in the country.

Even though daily COVID-19 cases have been declining since December 13, “the total number of Omicron infections documented by the 8 federal platform laboratories doubled over the last 2 days. Total positives going up again since yesterday (Tuesday),” tweeted Emmanuel André, microbiologist in charge of Belgium’s reference lab for COVID, on Wednesday. 

André also warned Wednesday morning of an imminent fifth wave on the Belgian radio station La Première: “This [fifth] wave has already largely begun, but it is not yet visible in terms of total contamination, since the Delta wave is decreasing very strongly day by day and the Omicron wave is rising very strongly.”

It remains unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible, though evidence and early data suggest the Omicron variant spreads faster than the Delta variant. It is not yet clear whether Omicron infections cause more severe diseases compared with the Delta variant, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Belgium’s hospitals received an average of 173 COVID-19 patients per day between December 15-21, according to the national health institute. Some 709 people are in intensive care. Seventy-six percent of Belgium’s population aged 12 and above is fully vaccinated with two doses, and 31 percent of that population has received a booster jab. 

The Consultative Committee will reconvene in early January to review COVID-19 measures based on the current pandemic situation.

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