MPs want more than medical experts on coronavirus advice council; Measures may be extended, PM says

Tweede Kamer
The Chairman's seat at the Tweede Kamerphoto: JanKranendonk / DepositPhotos

The lower house of Dutch parliament debated the current state of affairs around the coronavirus with the cabinet on Wednesday. Parliamentarians wanted to know whether more businesses can be opened before the extended "intelligent lockdown" date of May 20th, and called for more than medical experts to be on the government's Outbreak Management Team, NOS and report.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte does not see the restrictions being eased more quickly, especially in the catering and hospitality industry, he said in parliament. He said he would talk to the sector, but added that if bars and restaurants open again, many more people will be on the streets and that could have a negative effect on controlling the spread of the virus. "The hospitals are still overloaded," he stressed.

He repeated what he said on Tuesday, that he struggled enormously to find measures that could be relaxed. That struggle was more about not relaxing too many measures than relaxing too few, the Prime Minister said. "I am already anxious about what we're doing in education and with sports for young people," he said.

Now that the cabinet is working on the eventual relaxation of the lockdown, it should seek advice from experts other than just in the medical fields, like experts in ethics, behavioral sciences and economics, the MPs said. The VVD, CDA, D66, ChristenUnie, PVV, GroenLinks, SP, PvdA, PvdD, 50Plus, SGP, and FvD all called on the government to also set up a so-called Impact Management Team, in addition to the Outbreak Management Team (OMT). This new team can advise the government on the social and economic effects of the coronavirus measures. 

There is broad support in parliament for the work the OMT is doing. But now that pressure on healthcare is decreasing, the parties see that issues are emerging that are not so much of a medical nature. Instead these issues are more about how the Netherlands should be organized to live as a "1.5 meter society" in the coming months. VVD leader Klaas Dijkhoff pointed out that the government is now relying on the OMT for advice on topics that go beyond virus related issues. And that makes the advisory body vulnerable, he warned. 

But Rutte said that he does not want "such a committee" at this point. "It should not become an OMT for economists," he said. He will think about how to accommodate the parliamentarians' wishes, but "making choices in scarce space" is still primarily a medical issue, he said. 

There was criticism from parliamentarians about how the government is dealing with detecting infections. The GGD is responsible for tracing who a Covid-19 patient had contact with, but because the virus has spread to so many thousands of people across the country, it no longer has the manpower to do so, PVV leader Geert Wilders said. Many parliamentarians criticized the government's rush to introduce apps that can partly take over that research. So far none of the looked at apps met the requirements, and the Ministry of Health is now looking into developing its own app.

Instead of staring blindly at apps, the government should start expanding the GGD's manpower so that testing can be carried out on a larger scale. "We don't have time to wait for an app to work," Wilders said. GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver added: "The app is a means, the goal is contact research. You need a lot of people for that. That recruitment should have started a long time ago." PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher pointed out that Germany, Belgium, Canada and even the United states all increased their capacity, but the Netherlands is lagging behind. 

The debate in parliament also aroused concerns that the government has not done enough to procure personal protective equipment for medical personnel in the Netherlands, with SP parliamentarian Lilian Marijnissen pointing out her sharp objection to the government’s priorities. “I would be delighted if the enthusiasm with which the corona app is being developed was also there to start up the production of protective materials domestically,” Marijnissen declared in a statement that visibly irritated Rutte, who was seated nearby.