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Health

Belgium tightens COVID-19 measures, hopes to avoid lockdown

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium, one of the European countries worst hit by COVID-19, tightened curbs on social contacts on Friday by banning fans from sports matches and limiting numbers in cultural spaces, while officials in Wallonia imposed a stricter night curfew on residents.

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The local government in the French-speaking region, among the hardest-hit parts of the country, has told people to stay at home from 10pm to 6am and made remote working mandatory for students until Nov. 19.

Belgium, which has Europe’s second highest infection rate per capita after the Czech Republic, had already closed cafes, bars and restaurants and imposed a shorter night curfew. New infections hit a peak of 10,500 on Thursday.

But the government has resisted calls from medical experts to order a new lockdown to avoid causing more economic pain.

The restrictions - running until Nov. 19 - also include stricter social distancing. They are intended to avoid crowding on public transport, and impose a limit of 200 people in theatres, concert halls and cinemas.

“We are pressing the pause button .... we have a single objective, which is to limit contacts that are not strictly necessary,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told a news conference. “There’s no law that can stop the virus, the only ones who can stop it are us ... all together.”

Epidemiologist Marius Gilbert wrote on Twitter that hospitals were on the brink of collapse.

Calling for people to act responsibly, he said the protective mask was the “condom” of the coronavirus - “something ... we have in our pocket and that we take out when we love or respect the person we are talking to.”

Belgium is expected to record a daily rate of 20,000 new infections by next week, a spokesperson for the Sciensano health institute said.

The nation of 11 million people had 1,013 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents over the past week and its death tally since the pandemic began is 10,588, according to official figures.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Additional reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Marine Strauss, Timothy Heritage and Jan Harvey

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