Cathy Berx, who oversees the province of Antwerp, told Sky News she could “understand the fear” of a return to full lockdown, but said the virus is now spreading so fast that it asks people to stay away from Antwerp.
The latest figures produced by the Belgian government displays the average number of infections up 77% from the previous week.
Nearly 10,000 people have died from the disease, making it one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.
Ms. Berx has been governor of the province since 2008, acting as representative of the federal government. She told Sky News that she would “at least understand” if the UK decided to introduce quarantine restrictions on visitors from Belgium “although it would not be good”.
Antwerp has seen a rapid increase in cases in recent weeks, leading to talk of a second wave across Belgium.
About half of the recent cases of coronavirus recorded across the country come from this province alone.
Antwerp has now instituted a nighttime curfew as well as strict restrictions on social bubbles. In addition, Ms. Berx urged residents to stay at home, and also to work from home as much as possible,
When I asked her if she agreed that the lockdown had been relaxed too early, she replied: “I totally agree – especially in Antwerp. They worked with parameters like the reproduction rate R.
“They calculated this rate for the whole country, but they didn’t apply it for each region. If they had applied it to Antwerp as a region, they would have seen that it was still very high.
“In 147 days, there has not been a single day without new infections in Antwerp. That’s the problem – there were still so many viruses in Antwerp – and when you have a small outbreak, it can spread very, very quickly. ”
She also criticized other elements of the province’s response to the “first wave” of the pandemic, saying “people were not sure how to behave” after the restrictions were lifted and that too little efforts had been made to verify that people were observing self-isolation or mandatory quarantine.
“The legislation exists but it has not really been enforced,” she said.
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Everywhere in Antwerp, Pierre van Damme is in his laboratory. Professor of virology at the University of Antwerp, he also chairs the Vaccine & Infectious Disease Institute, which works among others with the World Health Organization.
He agrees that the lockdown measures were lifted too early in Antwerp, but points to other reasons for the resurgence of cases in the province.
He said: “Antwerp has a very high population density which is wonderful for the virus as it can easily pass from person to person.
“It’s also a very international city, with many cultures, so communicating about measurements can be a problem when people speak 20 or 30 languages.
“And there’s a lot of international exposure, with the port, the traffic and a lot of businesses.
“It’s a second wave that begins. People suffered a lot from the real lockdown for eight to ten weeks and then they thought it was over – they could throw parties and celebrations; cuddle and kiss. And then, two to three weeks later, the numbers start to rise again.
“It shows that if you don’t respect the physical distance, the infection spreads very easily. ”
Professor Van Damme is leading research on a potential vaccine. Phase 1 testing has just started and will be followed by further testing later this year.
He says that, if all goes well, there could be a vaccine available for vulnerable people by the middle of 2021, and for most of the population by the end of 2021, but adds, by way of of warning: “This means we still have to be very careful because we are living with this virus for another year and a half. “