The drastic move, also to be repeated in France, comes after an emergency Belgian government late on Thursday. Belgian ministers ordered schools, cafes and restaurants to close and tighter business hours for shops due to the outbreak.
It follows decisions by France and other European countries, notably Italy, to limit all but essential activities.
The unprecedented measures take effect from Friday at midnight and will run until April 3, although most Belgian schools are set to be shut for as long as five weeks, including the two-week Easter holidays, starting on 6 April.
The measures approved after a long meeting of the Belgian National Security Council are thought to be the most far-reaching in peacetime Belgium.
Belgium’s caretaker prime minister, Sophie Wilmes told a news conference late on Thursday night, “There is no lockdown. We want to avoid the Italian situation and avoid lockdowns.” Supermarkets and pharmacies will remain open and other shops will be required to close only on weekends.
“There is no lockdown. We want to avoid the Italian situation and avoid lockdowns” Sophie Wilmes, Prime Minister of Belgium
Everyone is advised to work from home if possible and the elderly are being told to stay home. Schools will be responsible for providing care when parents have no choice but to work and for those who work in health care. Public transport will continue to run for now.
Reaction to the shock move was swift, including from Martins which has a chain of hotels in Belgium and announced immediate closure of its restaurants.
A statement read, “Given the current situation, we unfortunately have to close our doors temporarily. Despite the consequences of this decision, we are convinced that it is the best decision for the good of all.”
KOJUMP, which operates trampoline parks in Brussels and Liege, said in a statement “By order of the public authorities through the ministers concerned, we are obliged to suspend all activities and close our parks until 3 April inclusive.As this decision is to slow down as much as possible the expansion of the coronavirus COVID-19, we thank you for your understanding.We will take all the necessary hygiene measures to welcome you in the best conditions when the park reopens.”
All Catholic churches in Belgium have been asked to close until further notice but other denominations are also affected. A statement from All Saints Church at Waterloo read, “Today, we have a decision from the Anglican Central Committee of Belgium that we will not meet for worship in church until April 4.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on Friday, was due to unveil emergency measures to tackle the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, including more flexibility on budgetary and state aid rules. The ECB decided on Thursday to inject more money into the real economy to combat the economic fallout of coronavirus.
In an earlier email to staff she said, “All employees with non-critical functions are to work remotely from Monday.” The Commission has so far confirmed six employees are infected, the Council three, and Parliament one.
Spain’s permanent representation to the EU has been “reduced to the minimum” the number of staff while the Italian permanent representation wants all staff to stay at home from Monday. Staff at the Irish and Polish permanent representations have been asked to telework.
France, with over 1,000 cases, is still pressing ahead with the first round of local ballots across the country this Sunday.
"The capacity of the Union to take decisions must be upheld so as to ensure effective Union action to limit the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and to mitigate its effects, as well as to deal with other essential challenges for the Union. At the same time the work of the institutions needs to be adapted to take into account the current situation and to make sure that the risk of spread of the virus is minimised” European Council statement
Brexit talks have been put on hold and next month’s extraordinary party congress of Germany’s Christian Democrats, due to elect a likely successor to Angela Merkel is among scores of events which have been cancelled. On Friday, it was announced that all top flight football in the UK will be suspended until at least 3 April.
Meanwhile, changes have been announced to Parliament’s calendar for the coming weeks. A statement said that due to the spread of coronavirus the Conference of Presidents (its president, Italian MEP David Sassoli, and political leaders) had modified its calendar of activities for the period from 16-22 March.
Committee meetings and other official activities initially foreseen for next week have either been postponed or cancelled.
“The president can authorise meetings to go ahead during the week if necessary, for example for trilogue negotiations on legislation between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission,” it goes on.
“The aim is to enable Parliament to exercise its core functions - legislative and budgetary powers, as well as plenary sessions and meetings of the institution’s governing bodies - while complying with duty of care for its members and staff and with a view to protecting public health.”
The statement adds that journalists may continue to enter parliament to work if needed but they will be required to sign a declaration at the entrance stating that they have not been to an affected area in the last 14 days. It concludes, “The week starting 23 March remains, for the time being, unchanged.”
Elsewhere, the commission said on Friday that it was doing all it can to protect staff. A spokesman said, “Since the very beginning of the crisis, the Commission has designed and implemented a set of measures to protect its staff in view of the evolving developments."
"The Commission’s approach in the management of this crisis has been to take all possible precautionary measures based on facts and scientific evidence, in consultation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)" European Parliament statement
“The Commission’s approach in the management of this crisis has been to take all possible precautionary measures based on facts and scientific evidence, in consultation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).”
“These precautionary measures first and foremost aim at containing the spread of the virus and to reduce the risk of infection of our staff while ensuring business continuity.” Most staff in the institutions are thought to be working from home at present.
On Thursday, the European Council, Commission and the Prime Minister of Croatia, holder of the rotating Presidency of the Council, issued a statement about the “continuation of the decision making process.”
It said, “The capacity of the Union to take decisions must be upheld so as to ensure effective Union action to limit the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and to mitigate its effects, as well as to deal with other essential challenges for the Union. At the same time the work of the institutions needs to be adapted to take into account the current situation and to make sure that the risk of spread of the virus is minimised.”
Meanwhile, researchers from Taiwan’s top academic institution, Academia Sinica have developed a rapid immune-based diagnostic kit to identify COVID-19 infected samples within 15 to 20 minutes.
The monoclonal antibodies do not cross-react with other coronaviruses and are quite specific in detecting the nucleocapsid protein of the COVID-19 causing coronavirus.
According to a paper in the JAMA medical journal,the median age of sufferers is 49–56. But even if children have the virus without severe symptoms, anyone who is infected can still spread the disease.
The mortality rate for anybody below 40 is 0.2 per cent, before a steady increase. 50-59 year-olds was 1.3 per cent, 60-69 year-olds was 3.6 per cent, 70-79 year olds was 8 per cent, and 80+ was 14.8 per cent.