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Belgium’s lockdown will remain almost unchanged until 3 May

The prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, announced the decision following a recommendation from an expert group, who warned that ending the measures too quickly could overwhelm hospitals.

“We wish to warn against too rapid and too-little-thought-through relaxation of the mesures,” said the group’s report seen by state broadcaster RTBF. “It can only take place within the framework of a long-term strategy clearly communicated.”

The group said its modelling showed a risk that too-rapid easing of measures could overwhelm the healthcare system, where pressure is already “high”.

From the 20 April there will be a gentle easing of a few measures. Garden centres and DIY shops will join supermarkets and pharmacies on the list of businesses permitted to open. Residents in care homes for older and disabled people will also be allowed visits from one single member of their family, as long as neither have shown symptoms of the virus in the previous two weeks. But schools will remain closed.

Belgium has been one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, with one of the highest per-capita death rates. According to the latest official data, 4,440 people have lost their lives to the virus.

However unlike the UK, Belgium includes in the total deaths in care homes, which account for 49% of victims. Belgium also includes people suspected of having died from coronavirus, even when no conclusive test has taken place, which may also elevate the numbers.

The number of new daily arrivals in hospital has been declining since the end of March, with the latest figures also showing a slight decrease in people in intensive care.

On Wednesday Belgium recorded a significant jump of 2,454 cases taking the total to 33,573. This reflects a big expansion in testing in care homes and not an increase in transmission rates, stated the national crisis centre, which compiles the statistics.