By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium has extended a lockdown aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak by two weeks until April 19 and will crack down harder on those who flout social distancing rules, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced on Friday.
She added the lockdown could be extended again for a further two weeks to May 3. The new shutdown will include the two-week Easter holiday period for schools.
"The scientists tell us that certain figures show a slowing of the exponential growth of the epidemic. It's good news," she told a news conference.
"But it is far too early to say with certainty that the epidemic is under control. Our measures are just starting and if we relax them now the consequences could be dramatic," she continued.
The country of 11.5 million people has been steadily tightening a shutdown since March 13, when schools, restaurants and sporting venues were ordered to close for three weeks. Last week, Belgians were limited to visiting shops selling food, pharmacies, a doctor, a post office or a bank.
They are also allowed to exercise outside, such as going on a walk, run or cycle ride.
Wilmes stressed this was not the moment to head to the countryside or the coast for the day or to sit in a park for hours. People could leave their homes for exercise, but only for as long as the exercise lasted.
"Those that do not respect these rules will face a penalty," she said, adding a system of on-the-spot fines was also being set up. "I know this only concerns a minority of people. It is essential that everyone goes along with this very seriously."
Wilmes also said that people should only go to work if remote working was not possible.
Belgium has 7,284 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Some 3,042 people have been hospitalised and 289 have died.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kirsten Donovan)