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Belgium becomes latest European country to announce strict lockdown amid soaring coronavirus cases

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People observing social distancing wait in line to be tested in a Red Cross COVID-19 test centre at Cinquantenaire park in Brussels. Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
People observing social distancing wait in line to be tested in a Red Cross COVID-19 test centre at Cinquantenaire park in Brussels. Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/AP
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Belgium has become the latest European country to announce a return to strict lockdown measures as cases of COVID-19 shot up.

Non-essential businesses will close and employees must work remotely when it is possible.

School holidays in the country will be extended by three days to November 15.

Citizens will only be allowed one visitor to their homes and must only go outside in groups of a maximum of four people.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced the new measures, which will start on Monday and stay in force for "at least a month and a half", at a press conference on Friday.

He called the regulations "last chance measures" to try to slow down the pandemic in Belgium.

"It's a lockdown, but one that will allow factories to operate, schools to reopen while being careful after November 15, and that will not leave people in isolated," Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said.

"Our country is in a health emergency. The pressure on the hospitals is immense and the healthcare personnel are making superhuman efforts to save lives every day," said De Croo, adding that by mid-November there would be "2,800 people in intensive care" if Belgium carried on down the same path.

Belgium now has more patients in its hospitals with the virus than at the peak of the first wave in early spring.

Reports during the week said health workers in some hospitals in Liege, Belgium's third-largest city and a coronavirus hotspot, had been asked to continue working even if they have tested positive for COVID-19, so long as they were not displaying any symptoms.

The country of 11.5 million people had 6,187 people hospitalised with the virus on Friday, 1,057 of whom were in intensive care.

Over the last week, it recorded more than 100,000 new infections (more than 15,000 per day on average), which is a record.

Our journalists are working on this story and will update it as soon as more information becomes available.