Full lockdown possible depending on "people's behavior": Health agency boss

Dappermarkt in Amsterdam after coronavirus announcement
Dozens gather at the Dappermarkt in Amsterdam Oost one day after stricter coronavirus containment measures were announced. March 16, 2020NL TimesNL Times

Stricter lockdown measures could be introduced in the Netherlands if people do not take the current restrictions and advisories seriously, cautioned public health agency director Jaap van Dissel. At the same time, a total lockdown is unlikely to save the Netherlands from the spread of the coronavirus which has caused a global pandemic, he told Nu.nl.

The Netherlands has a ban in place on all gatherings of over a hundred people, and has ordered all bars, restaurants, cafes, schools and daycare centers to close through April 6. All visitation at the country's elder care facilities and most correctional institutions has also halted. All measures in place, including the advisory that people keep a distance of 150 centimeters from each other, "are aimed at reducing contact between people," he said, as this will help prevent people in weakened health from being infected.

"I repeat again: whether more measures will be added now depends mainly on people's behavior. And yes, sometimes it is difficult, but then you have to choose the safe choice, for you and others," he said.

Van Dissel advocated for the possibility to relax and tighten restrictions as the situation unfolds, saying that being assertive and responsive to the timely needs in the Netherlands is a better path forward for controlling the infection than essentially a total shutdown of Dutch society, a situation police in the Netherlands said they were ready to enforce. He said he hopes that tighter restrictions are not needed, but it ultimately depends on how seriously people in society take the current advisories.

"If necessary, you could close shops in addition to the current measures. Or public transport. Or even that in the end everyone should stay at home. You are increasingly moving from social abstinence to a real lockdown."

He also said that those calling for a total, immediate lockdown are not seeing the full picture, and that it is a weak alternative to fluctuating restrictions. "What is often said is: then do a total lockdown, then we will be done with it."

However looking at Singapore's approach of rapid and widespread quarantines and restrictions backed by fines, arrests, and other punishments, he said at first it looked like it indeed worked. However, once some restrictions were relaxed "the virus has returned there. We think that you have to move towards a situation where you try to control the virus to the maximum while at the same time maintaining some possibility of social life."

One problem Van Dissel identified is the country's limited capacity to test people in the Netherlands. The RIVM has told NL Times that it is capable of administering and processing up to a thousand tests per day, which at current capacity would require over 46 years to test everyone now alive and residing in the country.

The RIVM has said since early March that it wanted to expand testing and capacity, but right now, Van Dissel told Nu.nl, the agency neither has the tests or manpower to accomplish that. It is a key reason why anyone with symptoms of a cold or flu, a cough, or a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or higher must stay home.

"With the advice to stay at home with all respiratory complaints, we will undoubtedly overshoot," and some people will stay home even if they are not infected with the novel coronavirus. He continued, "but if a percentage of them still have a coronavirus infection and do not stay at home, then we are not going to stop the outbreak when those people simply go to work."