A man dressed as Father Christmas has been accused of infecting dozens of staff and residents at a care home in Belgium.

Sinterklass – a legendary Dutch figure based on Saint Nicholas – visited the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Antwerp, last week.

He was welcomed, alongside his controversial helpers in black face known as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), to spread Christmas cheer to its 150 residents.

The Father Christmas fell ill and tested positive for Covid-19 three days after visiting, prompting mass testing at the home.

Mayor of Mol Wim Caeyers told local media: ‘It has been a very black day for the care home.

‘It is a very great mental strain to bear for the man that played St Nicholas, as well as for the organisers and the staff.’

So far 61 elderly residents and another 14 staff have tested positive for the virus. At least one of the residents has been treated with oxygen.

But pictures showed not all residents wore masks, and social distancing measures were not followed.

Mr Caeyers said: ‘Initially [the care home] said that the rules had been followed, but then straight away you receive photos from the families of residents where you can see that this wasn’t the case.’

His administration has called the care home ‘totally irresponsible’.

The mayor said that it will be ‘all hands on deck’ to bring the virus under control, with local health workers, the Red Cross and the Governor of Antwerp helping.

A spokeperson for Armonea, the firm which manages the home, said: ‘The team is very shocked by what happened, but that also makes them very motivated to get the virus out again.’

But one of Belgium’s top virologists says he doubts the Father Christmas figure could have caused so many infections.

Marc Van Ranst, of KU Leuven university, said: ‘Even for a super-spreader, these are too many infections at once.’

He believes that poor ventilation is much more likely the cause, and said CO2 measurements should be taken by the local health officials.

However he added having Santa visit during the pandemic was a ‘stupid idea’. 

Belgium has the highest number of coronavirus deaths per million of its population in the world.

In recent days it has recorded an increase in the number of daily infections – 2,762 on Saturday and another 4,978 on Sunday.

In the last week there was an increase in cases of around 3% compared to the week before.  

‘Black Pete’ is a Santa’s helper character which first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.

Those portraying Zwarte Piet traditionally put on blackface make-up and Renaissance costumes, but opponents say it depicts a racially offensive stereotype.

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