The number of fatalities in Belgium from the new coronavirus crossed 20,000 on Sunday, health officials said, with more than half the deaths from retirement care homes.
The country, with a population of 11.5 million, has recorded 662,694 cases and 20,038 deaths since the pandemic broke out, the Sciensano public health institute said.
Belgium counts all deaths of people who have had a positive Covid-19 test among virus fatalities, giving it one of the world’s highest death rates with 1,725 per 100,000 people, according to an AFP tally.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Belgium also included people who died and may have had the virus but did not necessarily have a test.
Covid-19 vaccinations began in Belgium on January 5.
Virus deaths in retirement homes reached 10,270 on December 18, the authorities said. Amnesty International had the previous month alleged the authorities had “abandoned” care homes.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Sciensano reported more than 250 deaths a day with a peak of 322 on April 8.
The figures improved during summer but began rising again in October with 218 daily deaths recorded on November 10. The average number of deaths reported last week was 58 a day with about 1,780 infections.
More than 1.9 million people worldwide have now died from the virus, with new variants adding to soaring cases and prompting the re-introduction of restrictions on movement across the globe.
Belgium is suspending flight and train arrivals from Britain from midnight (2300 GMT) Sunday after the UK detected a coronavirus variant suspected to be more infectious, a government official told AFP.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian television channel VRT the ban will be in place for at least 24 hours.
The abrupt decision came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown for London and parts of southeast England to at least December 30.
An Iranian diplomat goes on trial in Belgium on Friday accused of plotting to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris, in a case that has stoked tensions with Tehran.
The case shines an uncomfortable light on Tehran’s international activities just as it hopes for a thaw in relations with the West as US President Donald Trump, who pulled Washington out of the Iran nuclear deal, is due to leave office.
In June 2018, Belgian authorities thwarted what they said was an attempt to smuggle explosives to France to attack a meeting of one of Iran’s exiled opposition movements which was attended by close allies of US President Donald Trump.
Later that year, the French government accused Iran’s intelligence service of being behind the operation, a charge the Islamic republic has furiously denied.
Assadollah Assadi, a 48-year-old Iranian diplomat formerly based in Vienna, faces life in prison if convicted.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which includes the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or (MEK), organised a rally in Villepinte outside Paris on June 30, 2018.
Several well-known international figures — including Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former British officials as well as Franco-Colombian former senator Ingrid Betancourt — and NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi were to attend.
On the same morning, Belgian police intercepted a Belgian-Iranian couple driving from Antwerp and carrying half-a-kilo of TATP explosives and a detonator.
“We can’t imagine the scale of the disaster averted,” said lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier, who is representing the interests of the NCRI, along with French colleague William Bourdon.
Outside the court, Bourdon declared: “It’s an unprecedented, historic trial. It the first time that, symbolically, the mullahs’ regime is in the dock and will be judged through the case against its so-called diplomats.”
The arrested couple, 36-year-old Nassimeh Naami and 40-year-old Amir Saadouni, join Assadi in the dock, alongside another alleged accomplice, Mehrdad Arefani, 57.
All four are charged with attempting to carry out a terrorist attack and taking part in the activity of a terrorist group. All face life sentences.
Assadi was arrested while he was travelling through Germany where he had no immunity from prosecution, being outside of the country of his diplomatic posting.
Arefani, an Iranian poet who had lived in Belgium for more than a decade, was arrested in France in 2018 after Belgium issued a European arrest warrant.
– ‘Absolutely furious’ –
Counsel representing those targeted by the alleged attack say Arefani was close to Assadi, said to be the architect of the plot, and point to an Austrian SIM card found in his possession.
The two men deny any connection.
Dimitri de Beco, defence counsel for Assadi, has accused the civil plaintiffs of trying to turn the case into a political trial on behalf of the opposition movement.
According to Iran expert Francois Nicoullaud — a former French ambassador to Tehran — Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was surprised to learn about the failed attack.
“Visiting Europe at the time, he was absolutely furious to learn about this intelligence service operation, on which he hadn’t been consulted,” the diplomat told AFP.
At the time of the alleged plot, Rouhani was trying to maintain the support of European capitals for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was abandoned by the Trump administration but remains on life-support as European capitals try to keep Iran on board.
When Paris pointed the finger at Iranian intelligence, an Iranian spokesman voiced denial and alleged that opponents of the deal in “certain quarters” were attempting to frame Tehran.
The trial is scheduled to take two days, Friday and then Thursday next week. The court is then expected to adjourn to consider its verdict before ruling early next year.
It also comes a day after a prisoner swap that saw the release of three Iranians jailed over a 2012 bomb plot in Thailand, in exchange for the freeing of an Australian-British lecturer imprisoned by Tehran for alleged spying.
The UN Security Council was due to hold its first meeting on the conflict in Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region Tuesday, amid division between European and African members over whether the closed-door discussion should take place.
France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and Estonia — backed by the United States — announced the virtual meeting would go ahead after African countries pulled out of organizing it.
“They say ‘Africans solutions to African problems.’ It is something that we have to respect only to a certain degree,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“At a certain moment, we have to put it on the agenda, even if the Africans dont like it,” he added, highlighting the Europeans’ impatience over the lack of Security Council action on the weeks-long fighting.
Earlier, South Africa, Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines withdrew their request because envoys have yet to travel to Ethiopia, said one African diplomat.
“It is necessary to allow more time for the regional efforts that are being undertaken in this regard,” he had told AFP.
The African Union announced on Friday that three former presidents had been appointed as special envoys to Ethiopia to help mediation efforts between the conflicting parties.
Forces loyal to Tigray’s ruling party have been battling Ethiopian soldiers for nearly three weeks.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered the leaders of the northern region of Tigray to surrender ahead of a threatened all-out assault on its capital, Mekele.
Abiy launched the military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the region, and of seeking to destabilize his government.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed, but a communications blackout has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
UN chief Antonio Guterres last week called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to assist civilians caught in the fighting, noting that authorities had so far rejected attempts at mediation.
“We are very worried about the situation in Ethiopia,” the secretary general told reporters in New York, warning of a “dramatic humanitarian impact” including in neighboring Sudan.
“We have been asking for the full respect of international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered,” he said.
Over 40,000 Ethiopians have fled to neighboring Sudan, the UN’s refugee agency said Monday.
Romelu Lukaku helped fire Belgium into the UEFA Nations League finals by scoring twice in a 4-2 win over Denmark on Wednesday, while Italy also secured a place in the last four with victory away to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The world’s number one-ranked side, Belgium only required a draw from their last League A, Group 2 game at home to Denmark behind closed doors in Leuven and took an early lead through Youri Tielemans.
Jonas Wind equalised for Denmark, but Lukaku got a second-half double and Kevin De Bruyne made sure of the victory for Roberto Martinez’s side after Thibaut Courtois allowed a Nacer Chadli back-pass to squirm under his leg and in for an own goal.
Italy secured first place in Group 1 with a 2-0 triumph in Sarajevo thanks to a goal in each half from Torino’s Andrea Belotti and Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo.
That ensured they finished a point ahead of the Netherlands, who came from behind to beat Poland 2-1 away with captain Georginio Wijnaldum scoring the winner after Memphis Depay’s penalty cancelled out Kamil Jozwiak’s opener.
Italy and Belgium join Spain and World Cup holders France in a final tournament which is expected to be held in Italy in October next year.
Before the finals, European national teams will start their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in March and then the delayed Euro 2020 is set to go ahead next June and July.
England have more than one eye on that tournament, with the semi-finals and final scheduled for Wembley, and Gareth Southgate’s team rounded out their Nations League campaign with a 4-0 win over Iceland.
Declan Rice and Mason Mount scored in the first half and Manchester City’s Phil Foden got his first international goals with a late brace as England had three players aged 21 or younger score in the same match for the first time since 1883.
“It was a very difficult game. All the players were hearing messages that this is meaningless and there was nothing to play for but they did play for it,” Southgate told Sky Sports.
Birkir Mar Saevarsson was sent off for Iceland who, like Bosnia, are relegated and will compete in League B in the next edition.
Wales move up, Scotland miss out
Wales won promotion to League A with a 3-1 win over 10-man Finland in Cardiff that allowed them to top Group B4.
Despite manager Ryan Giggs being missing after his recent arrest on suspicion of assaulting his girlfriend, Wales came good with goals from Harry Wilson, Daniel James and Kieffer Moore.
Teemu Pukki netted for Finland, who had left-back Jere Uronen sent off after just 12 minutes.
Winning their group also improves Wales’ chances of securing a place in the 2022 World Cup qualifying play-offs, as the two best group winners in the Nations League are guaranteed play-off places if they don’t make it via the usual route.
While Wales go up, Scotland missed out on promotion from League B, Group 2 after losing 1-0 in Israel, their second consecutive loss since clinching qualification for Euro 2020.
Manor Solomon’s first-half goal sunk the Scots, and the Czech Republic won promotion at their expense after beating Slovakia 2-0.
“We are all disappointed with the way the week’s finished,” Scotland manager Steve Clarke told Sky Sports.
“It’s been an historic week for Scottish football. There was no lack of endeavour. It was similar to the game on Sunday (1-0 loss in Slovakia), just a little lack of quality in the final third meant we couldn’t get a goal.”
Also securing promotion to the top tier were Austria, who drew 1-1 with a Norway side deprived of stars Erling Braut Haaland and Martin Odegaard after being ordered to quarantine because of a positive coronavirus test in their squad.
Hungary won promotion too thanks to a 2-0 victory over Turkey combined with a 5-0 hammering for Russia at the hands of Serbia.
The Republic of Ireland avoided relegation to League C after drawing 0-0 with Bulgaria, but Northern Ireland and Turkey were among the sides to go down, while Montenegro, Armenia, Slovenia and Albania go up to the second level.
Flemish liberal leader Alexander De Croo will be Belgium’s new prime minister at the head of a seven-party coalition government, it was announced Wednesday — 16 months after an inconclusive election.
De Croo’s French-speaking socialist rival Paul Magnette confirmed that the parties had chosen the 44-year-old finance minister as premier. He is to be sworn in on Thursday by Belgium’s king.
By choosing a Flemish leader, the incoming government hopes to balance the fact that its parliamentary base will be drawn from mainly French-speaking parties, with the main Dutch-speaking groups in opposition.
“We flipped a coin and it came down to Alexander and it’s an excellent choice,” Magnette joked at the end of the press conference to present the outcome of the negotiations.
Belgium has had no governing majority for 21 months since the collapse of former leader Charles Michel’s government, and it has been 493 days since federal elections failed to resolve the crisis.
Leaders from seven parties met until the early hours on Wednesday before coming to an agreement on a government programme and cabinet line-up to be presented to King Philippe.
De Croo will replace French-speaking liberal leader Sophie Wilmes who has served as acting premier during the coronavirus epidemic but never wielded a parliamentary majority.
The new coalition will bring together two socialist parties — one French-speaking, and one Flemish — two liberal parties and two sets of greens.
The CD&V, a party of Flemish Christian democrats will also join, but the larger Flemish nationalist N-VA, which was in government between 2014 and 2018 will leave power.
Belgium’s House of Representatives is expected to meet on Thursday to endorse the new government.
The country has been governed by a minority coalition since December 2018, when the N-VA abruptly left Michel’s government during a row about immigration.
The legislative election of May 2019 saw gains by various green and fringe groupings, further fragmenting the political landscape and making it harder to build a majority around the traditional parties.
Belgium has a long history of political instability and previously went without a government for 541 days in 2010 and 2011.
Energy major Shell unleashed Wednesday a major restructuring to combat plunging oil prices driven by the coronavirus pandemic, warning it will also spark more asset writedowns in the third quarter.
Royal Dutch Shell said in a statement that it would axe between 7,000 and 9,000 positions by the end of 2022, of which 1,500 staff have already agreed to take voluntary redundancy this year.
The job cuts would amount to roughly 10 percent of Shell’s total global workforce of 80,000 staff across more than 70 countries.
The Anglo-Dutch giant aims to generate annual savings of between $2.0 billion and $2.5 billion (1.7-2.1 billion euros) under the plan, which also includes other measures to streamline the business in response to the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis.
Those savings will partially contribute to the $3.0-$4.0 billion efficiency drive that was announced in March and runs to 2021, it added.
Shell had already flagged in July that job cuts were in the pipeline after posting a colossal $18.1-billion second-quarter net loss as coronavirus savaged the world oil market.
It warned on Wednesday that it would suffer more post-tax impairment charges of between $1.0-$1.5 billion in third-quarter earnings, which will be published at the end of October.
“This is an extremely tough process. It is very painful to know that you will end up saying goodbye to quite a few good people,” said Chief Executive Ben van Beurden in an interview on the company website.
“But we are doing this because we have to, because it is the right thing to do for the future of the company.
“We have to be a simpler, more streamlined, more competitive organisation that is more nimble and able to respond to customers.”
Shell’s main British rival BP is axing around 10,000 jobs or 15 percent of its total workforce in response to the virus turmoil.
Belgium, one of the European countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, on Wednesday reported its death toll from the pandemic had surpassed 10,000.
The country, which has a population of 11.5 million, recorded 10,001 deaths by Wednesday, 14 more than in the previous 24 hours.
Reported infections rose to 117,115 from 115,353, the Sciensano research institute said.
Since the start of the pandemic seven months ago, Belgian authorities have included as wide a number of cases as possible in the toll, adding fatalities in hospitals and care homes, and those people whose deaths may have been caused by the virus but were not tested.
During the peak of the pandemic in April, Belgium recorded more than 250 deaths daily over about 10 days, according to Sciensano.
The death toll surpassed 5,000 in April.
Since the summer, testing capacity has been stepped up, leading to a sharp rise in the number of positive cases recorded, particularly in September when people returned to work and school after the summer holidays.
The daily number of deaths has increased since the start of this month, going from three to an average of 7-8 in recent days, with the elderly and those in poor health increasingly among those infected.
The elderly in around 1,500 care homes have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
These facilities have recorded around half of the deaths, according to official figures. This rises to around two-thirds, or 64 per cent, if residents of care homes who died in hospital are included, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
Millions of students headed back to class in France, Belgium and England on Tuesday as European schools cautiously reopened amid rising coronavirus cases in several countries, with face masks often mandatory.
Officials have drawn fire from parents and teachers worried that strict social distancing and other protective measures will not be enough to prevent a second wave of COVID-19.
But many governments insist that the greater risk is young people losing out on crucial in-person lessons, and that keeping kids at home for distance learning puts too big a burden on working parents.
“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and well-being,” Britain’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said.
The UN’s education agency UNESCO warned that just half the roughly 900 million primary and secondary students restarting school from August to October will actually be allowed back in classrooms.
“Several generations are facing the threat of school closures, which concern hundreds of millions of students and have lasted many months,” the agency’s director general Audrey Azoulay said in a statement late Monday.
In France, some 12.4 million students returned Tuesday, with masks required for all teachers as well as students over 11.
“It doesn’t bother me to wear a mask, even if it does feel a little weird,” said Marie, who was starting her first year of middle school in the southern French city of Marseille.
But many teachers were less enthusiastic. “How can we connect with children when half your face is hidden behind a mask?” said Julie Siata, who teaches English at another Marseille school.
– ‘No zero risk’ –
Pupils also returned Tuesday in Belgium, which has suffered one of the highest rates of coronavirus deaths in Europe.
Masks are required for those aged 12 and older, and must be kept in a protective case or pouch.
“You can’t risk having the mask contaminated when taking it off to eat,” said Martin, soon to be 13, as he headed to school in Brussels, adding that he was “stressed” about the new protective measures.
In England and Wales, where openings as well as start times are being staggered this week to avoid crowds on public transport and playgrounds, teachers are urging parents to avoid lingering with other parents after drop-offs.
The British government has faced a storm of criticism over reopening schools, after reversing course last week to announce that face masks would be recommended after all to stem a rise in new Covid-19 cases.
German schools reopened last month, as did many in Scotland which has control of its school system.
Masks will also be compulsory in Greece, where children are expected to return to school on Monday, while Spain will require all students 6 and older to wear masks when classes resume next week.
Children in Spain should also maintain a distance of 1.5 metres (5 feet) from each other, and are being urged to wash their hands at least five times a day.
“I believe fathers, mothers, and the education community can be sure that their sons and daughters, that school employees, will be much safer in schools than in other places,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told Cadena Ser radio.
“But there is no zero risk,” he acknowledged, as Spain also reported an alarming surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks.
In Italy, where the virus first struck in Europe, concerns are growing that school reopenings set for September 14 could prove too risky despite masks and staggered opening and cafeteria times.
Three regions in southern Italy have already pushed back openings to the end of this month.
Tempers flared as the deadlocked EU coronavirus summit rolled over from Sunday into Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron upbraiding his Dutch and Austrian colleagues and threatening a walk-out.
Frustration had been building for three days as the 27 leaders wrangled over the size and form of an up to 750-billion-euro ($860-billion) package of loans and grants to lift virus-ravaged countries out of recession.
An alliance of so-called “frugals”, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, has been resisting calls for the bulk of the funds to be doled out as non-repayable grants.
Macron, according to witnesses, bashed the table, attacked Kurz for leaving the room to make a call, and accused Rutte of behaving like former British premier David Cameron — whose strategy “ended badly”.
Cameron often took a hard line at EU summits seeking concessions for Britain, but ended up losing a Brexit referendum — and his job.
According to a European source Kurz was offended by Macron’s behaviour.
A member of the French delegation told AFP that some of the accounts of what had happened has been “a little caricatured” but confirmed that Macron had “taken a hard line on their inconsistencies”.
According to officials, Macron had denounced the two leaders for their insistence that the recovery funds take the form of loans with strict conditions attached, rather than as grants — and had said he would rather walk away than make a bad deal.
France wants at least 400 billion euros to be available as grants, but the Frugals want to cut that back substantially.