Rutte: Face masks "urgently advised" in public places
Over seven months after the first known case of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus was discovered in the Netherlands, the ruling Dutch Cabinet has decided to issue an urgent and immediate advice for people to wear face masks in indoor spaces which are accessible to the public. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that the "urgent advice" has immediate effect.
Rutte made the statement during a debate on Wednesday in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch Parliament. He said that the Cabinet will release the full details of the advisory on Friday, including where it will and will not apply. He did not rule out the possibility of the advice applying to schools and education institutions.
The Prime Minister also said that the Cabinet will not make masks a legal obligation for the time being, and that maintaining proper hygiene and a safe social distance remain paramount. "The face mask is not a replacement to you keeping your distance. That is absolutely not the intention," he said.
A similar face mask advisory went into effect on Tuesday evening in the metropolitan areas of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague a day after a hastily convened press conference with Rutte and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge revealed a list of new policies to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the Netherlands. Having different rules for different regions made the rules unclear, argued CDA MP Pieter Heerma.
"In all regions, there must be a common line regarding the advice to wear a face mask in indoor areas," he said.
The lack of a legal obligation to wear masks could still fall short of impressing opposition MPs, who said earlier in the day that shopkeepers should not be burdened with deciding for themselves if they should enforce the government's advice.
Rutte also acknowledged that the government could have acted more swiftly and with more robust measures as the spread of the virus rapidly started to spread again throughout the Randstad region. He was responding to criticism from, among others, Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher who said that even the government's own advisory board, the Outbreak Management Team, wanted stricter measures in place at a national level.
Asscher questioned if the government's policy package was a "gamble" and whether it wouId actually cut down on two months of exponential growth in infections. "I think that is a dangerous prospect. I think the problems are bigger and that you should quickly do more now to protect health, but also to protect the economy. Because I think the Cabinet should recognize that with these measures the chance that there will be easing again in three weeks is actually zero," he stated.
This week, all four indicators the government made public for monitoring purposes were beyond warning levels, including per capita infections, the basic reproduction of the virus, average daily Covid-19 hospitalizations and average daily Covid-19 ICU admissions.
"Nobody knows when this critical period will end," Rutte said to the Members of Parliament, who spent the better part of the afternoon criticizing the Cabinet's recent policies to address the crisis. He said he believes the crisis is harder for people to deal with, as the end is not in sight and we are entering the dark days of winter with a reduction in daylight hours.
The Prime Minister entered the Tweede Kamer about an hour after public health agency RIVM released data showing that another 3,302 people tested positive for the virus, a new record for most infections in a single day. He and De Jonge said the government expected 5,000 new daily infections next week.