Rutte unveils tougher Covid restrictions; "I blame myself" for poor communication
Amid an escalating healthcare crisis in the Netherlands brought on by two weeks of extremely high numbers of coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Mark Rutte introduced a slate of new restrictions meant to get the situation under control. With measures in the country having been restored and tightened up over the past month, Rutte was contrite about his Cabinet's decision to unlock the country over the summer without making it clear people still needed to follow basic rules, like practicing good hygiene, keeping a safe physical distance from others, ventilating indoor spaces, and getting tested for coronavirus when symptoms arise.
"We thought and hoped to be rid of most of the measures by the summer. But the reality is very different; in healthcare it is all hands on deck again," Rutte said. He noted that the criticism levied against his government for loosening restrictions so freely, and keeping them that way for so long, was justified. "We tried again and again to convince people of the importance of the measures, but apparently we, myself too, were less successful," he said. "Less than half of those with symptoms get tested. That shows that our message is not coming across strong enough. I blame myself for that. We have to do that better."
In the two weeks since the last press conference, when a handful of "lockdown-like" measures were introduced, people in the Netherlands tested positive for the coronavirus 287,200 times. That equates to a staggering 1,641 infections per 100,000 residents. In that same 14-day period, a total of 3,756 people were hospitalized for Covid-19, with 567 sent directly to an intensive care unit. The ICU system is so overwhelmed, that a Code Black situation could happen next week, meaning hospitals may have to refuse patients who need help.
"If I knew what could be done better, I would have done it already. It must be more successful. The criticism in recent weeks was justified." As a result, Rutte introduced several restrictions with the goal of immediately cutting the number of in-person contact moments by at least 20 percent. The new measures will take effect on Sunday, and will last at least until December 14. "We are hoping for a normal Christmas, but we cannot give any guarantees for that either."
As expected, most shops and locations will be required to close nightly at 5 p.m. This also includes a ban on amateur sports competitions and practices during the evening. Exceptions include essential stores, like supermarkets and drugstores, which can close at 8 p.m. All locations can re-open again at 5 a.m.
Essential services were also exempted. This includes professional service providers like notaries, lawyers, mortgage advisors, and medical close-contact professionals.
Face masks will also be required again in locations where coronavirus access passes are needed for entry, including all bars, restaurants, cafes, and cinemas. "The face mask must only be worn when you walk around," Rutte said. Additionally, social distancing will have to be provided at these locations, a requirement which was eliminated with the introduction of the coronavirus access pass system "That will have the practical effect of cutting capacity by a third."
He also said that the education system would not be closed as a result of the package of measures. "The education system will remain open. Not because there are few or no infections, but because the social impact would be huge." However, some measures need to be taken to slow the number of infections there. This includes face masks in the hallways for primary school students in Groups Six, Seven and Eight, and also all secondary school students. "We ask parents to let children come to school alone as much as possible, and that teachers and students self-test twice per week."
Rutte also asked that contact be reduced between children and people over the age of seventy. "The oldest groups are the most vulnerable. If necessary, grab an iPad or telephone. It is understandable to celebrate Sinterklaas next week, but keep the groups limited, keep your distance and do a self-test. Protect each other."
The Cabinet also stressed in firmer terms the importance of following other pieces of urgent advice, even if they are not mandatory. "Work at home, unless there is really no other option. Workplaces are an important source of infections," Rutte said. He reminded people that there is a limit of four household visitors over 12 years of age per day, and the importance of using coronavirus self-test kits.
"And choices have consequences. It is never too late to make the choice for vaccination."