Rutte: Can’t ignore Covid Omicron variant, must close schools early & extend lockdown
The Cabinet confirmed its decision to close primary schools one week before the winter vacation, and extend the evening lockdown by one month. Additionally, after school care must also close from Friday, but will be allowed to reopen during the holiday period. That should mean that the childcare centers can reopen from December 27, and schools reopen on January 10.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the it a “setback,” but said it should not come as a surprise. He and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said the decision was largely made out of concern for the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Rutte said that it appeared as if the Netherlands has gone beyond the peak of the current coronavirus wave, but the number of infections is still high, over 300 new Covid-19 patients are still admitted to hospitals daily, and the hospitals still have a high number of Covid-19 patients in active treatment.
At the same time, concern over the Omicron variant led De Jonge to announce an ambitious and rapid scaling up of the Covid-19 booster shot campaign. The Netherlands was among the last in the European Union to start with boosters, and the country sits near the bottom for boosters given, even as it reached 1 million jabs last week. As of today, everyone over 60 is now able to make an appointment for a booster. The goal is to expand that to all residents over 45 by the end of next week, and all adults by mid-January. The booster jab can be administered to anyone who received their last vaccine dose at least three months ago, instead of six.
"Worrying does not help combat the virus. Vaccination does. If you have not yet been vaccinated, the Omicron variant is the reason to rethink vaccination,” De Jonge said.
The prime minister noted that “confidence in the approach to the coronavirus is much lower than at the start of the crisis. That is a rough conclusion, and it is also logical. Everyone is fed up.” Rutte said that it appeared as if the Netherlands has gone beyond the peak of the current coronavirus wave, but the number of infections is still high, over 300 new Covid-19 patients are still admitted to hospitals daily, and the hospitals still have a high number of Covid-19 patients in active treatment.
School closure explained
The politicians said they wanted to limit the possibility children infect each other, spread the infection to their immediate families, and then pass the coronavirus on to older family members during holiday visits. “One senior is not the other, but on average people over the age of seventy end up in hospital much more often because of corona,” Rutte said.
“We have had intensive discussions about it, knowing how such a decision leads to learning delays and practical problems for parents and schools,” said Rutte. Even though the Outbreak Management Team repeatedly advised the Cabinet to announce the early school closing over the past month, and Cabinet members repeatedly committed to keeping schools open as long as possible, the decision was announced less than a week before it goes into effect. “However, we could only make this decision today. We could not ignore the warnings about the Omicron variant.”
The winter school break was set to start after school ended on December 24. Instead, the primary schools will have to close by the end of Friday. There may be some flexibility offered to those parents unable to arrange care on such short notice. Also families where the parents work in a crucial profession will be offered emergency care for children.
All lockdown restrictions continue, without holiday exceptions
All other existing lockdown restrictions, including the limitations on household guests, will also continue for four more weeks than initially planned. “We have indeed decided to extend the current package until Friday, January 14. Christmastime will not bring the good tidings you hope for,” Rutte said.
“It means that during Christmas, four guests remains the norm, from the age of thirteen. So there is no exception around the holidays, even if our need to visit each other is very strong. We must protect the people we hold dear,” he continued. The prime minister asked people to use coronavirus self-test kits before any family visits, to avoid shaking hands, practice good hygiene, ventilating indoor spaces with fresh air, and remaining at home when experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.
The Cabinet decision also means that almost all organizations are required to close every evening at 5 p.m. They can reopen at 5 a.m. the following day. There are exceptions for essential stores, like supermarkets and drugstores, as well as for essential service providers, like attorneys, notaries, and mortgage advisors.
Face masks will also continue to be required for everyone 13 years of age and over using public transportation, walking around education facilities, and visiting indoor public spaces. This includes shops, museums, and hospitality businesses.
Additionally, anyone visiting a restaurant or bar must be given an assigned seat, social distancing rules remain in force, and audiences are forbidden from attending sports competitions. There will be more financial support available for many affected organizations.
"We cannot just take the pain away. Much will be demanded of the adaptability of Dutch enterprises,” Rutte stated.