The Netherlands lifted most of its remaining coronavirus restrictions from 5am on Wednesday, allowing bars, restaurants and theatres to reopen until 10pm every evening – despite record infection levels expected to peak in March.
In a televised address on Tuesday evening, prime minister Mark Rutte – flanked by newly appointed health minister Prof Ernst Kuipers – said he wanted to “make clear” that the decision to reopen constituted “a real risk”.
“After all the public health campaigns and the restrictions, we are going to the limit of what is possible now. It’s a big step and it feels very odd after two years.”
The government’s expert advisers had recommended a closing time of 8pm, but that was overruled by the cabinet following representations from the country’s mayors, with the agreement of regional safety board chiefs.
Despite Mr Rutte’s misgivings, the latest easing was slated on Wednesday by the hospitality and cultural sectors for not going far enough.
‘Fully fledged night out’
The association of concert halls said the 10pm limit meant they were not able to offer their customers “a fully fledged night out”. Cinema owners said their response had switched “from relief to disbelief” as details emerged.
Despite the easing, the 1.5m social distancing rule will remain in place, restricting the numbers that venues can accommodate. Customers will have to wear masks when moving around indoors and a coronavirus pass will be obligatory for entry.
Sports events, as well as museums, zoos and other attractions, will also reopen subject to the same restrictions. At indoor locations, 1,250 is the maximum capacity, while at outdoor venues one-third of available seats can be filled.
At the same time, quarantine rules for schools – which reopened on January 10th – are being relaxed to prevent the need for entire classes to be sent home. For adults, working from home remains the recommendation.
The risk identified by Mr Rutte is clear from the relentless increase in infection numbers.
Tuesday’s weekly figures from the public health inspectorate showed a record 366,120 new cases over the seven days – an increase of 51 per cent on the previous week.
Both Mr Rutte and Prof Kuipers stressed that the Omicron wave was more than “just a light dose of the flu”, a perception that seems to be gaining ground in the Netherlands.
Prof Kuipers said the latest easing, to be reviewed on March 8th, could lead to infections “topping 100,000 a day”. In that situation, “if you have more infections, you will have more people in hospital”.
Figures this week from the national statistics bureau showed there have been 31,000 deaths above what would normally be expected over the past two years.