Netherlands "cannot open all at once": PM; Cabinet responds to Trump attack on WHO
With reporting by Byron Mühlberg and Janene Pieters.
Even though people want the Netherlands to open back up and relax the rules imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the country "cannot open all at once," said Prime Minister Mark Rutte at a press conference on Wednesday. The rules will be relaxed based on the ability to reduce pressure on the healthcare system, protect elderly people and people in poor health, and attain more insight into the spread of the virus.
"I don't see the normal society that we had returning in the short term. The one and a half meter society is the new normal," he said. Rutte went on to defend the current social distancing measures in place, pointing to signs that the spread of the virus is declining. However he noted that even though there has been a decline in the number of patients in intensive care, it is still far busier in ICUs than before the pandemic began.
Sticking to the measures will further reduce the number of people who wind up in ICU with respiratory illness Covid-19. "There is not an easy solution," Rutte said.
Reopening society under the "new normal"
"In any case, we must prepare for a transition phase to the new normal of our 1.5-meter society," he said, adding that the "input of many scientists" was factoring in to how offices and sectors can reopen. "All possibilities are explored to give hands and feet to what might be possible again."
Some sectors could reopen slowly, and step by step, if they establish a plan for continuing operations in a world governed by social distancing, said Economic Affairs Minister Eric Wiebes shortly before the press conference. "If you do not have such a protocol ready, I can hardly imagine that it can open," he said. Any plan would have to be evaluated by a committee before companies would be permitted to reopen their businesses.
"A good plan includes things that have to do with keeping distance, hygiene, protection measures and influencing behavior of customers and suppliers," he said. He said there is no room to allow an insufficient plan to advance the spread of the virus.
"And it is important that we think about it, in every company, every school, every theatre, every office, every museum," Rutte said. "Because strict measures are needed in many places."
For now, the Cabinet will not advise the public to wear surgical masks and respirators, like Belgium and Germany did on Wednesday. That equipment, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said, is more severely needed by healthcare workers, and not the general public. He reiterated an advisory point that the masks may also provide a false sense of security.
As previously stated, more specific information will be released on April 21, a week before some restrictions are set to expire. But even relaxed rules is no guarantee life goes back to normal. "And moreover, we cannot rule out the possibility that we will have to [tighten restrictions] again at certain points," Rutte said.
Apps and Testing
De Jonge also told the gathered press that the government has received hundreds of proposals and concepts for apps which could track people with coronavirus, identify and notify people who came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, advise them on managing their symptoms and facilitating communication with their doctors.
"More than 750 proposals have been submitted and all of them are being assessed in terms of usability, privacy, security and applicability," he said. De Jonge said they will spend the upcoming week reducing the proposals down to those which fit that criteria. After that, the public will get an opportunity to give input on the proposals.
Between apps and testing, De Jonge argued that "better detection of infections can help prevent a new outbreak." He said the country has manged to progressively increase test capacity.
Indeed, the Netherlands has managed to scale up its coronavirus testing to about 6,000 people per day, and nearly tested 7 thousand tests in a single day late last week. That is an increase from between one and two thousand people daily about a month ago. While De Jonge previously committed that the country could increase this to 17,500, he was less definitive during the press conference.
An email on test capacity leaked to broadcaster NOS said that the country secured enough material to conduct 2.7 million tests within the next six months. If those supplies are delivered, it would equate to under 14 thousand tests daily.
"All healthcare workers who have symptoms have been tested," he said.
Cabinet responds to Trump's accusations against WHO
On Twitter, Minister Sigrid Kaag of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation stressed the Netherlands' support for the World Health Organization. "Now is not the time to hold back funding. Once the pandemic is under control, lessons can be learned. For now, focus on overcoming this crisis," she tweeted.
She was responding to U.S. President Donald Trump , who accused the WHO of spreading misinformation around the coronavirus crisis, underestimating the crisis, and not critically looking at information provided by China. His decision to suspend funding will have a major impact on the WHO, as the United States contributes between 400 million and 500 million dollars a year to the organization.
Parliamentarians from coalition parties CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie want the European Union to come to the aid of the WHO now that America withdrew its support, they said in questions posed to Minister Kaag. The MPs asked Kaag and her EU colleagues to urge the United States not to stop funding until the pandemic is under control.
They also want to know what the EU can do to help the WHO with this financial setback. On Twitter VVD parliamentarian Arne Weverling called it a "bad signal to suspend financing".