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Netherlands imposes western Europe’s first partial lockdown since summer.

A return to record levels of coronavirus infection and a blizzard of warnings that hospitals are facing “gridlock” has forced the Dutch caretaker government to impose a new three-week partial lockdown – becoming the first country in western Europe to do so.

The announcement came from acting prime minister Mark Rutte on Friday evening, after he and health minister Hugo de Jonge emerged from a meeting with the government’s outbreak management team, the expert panel charged with guiding policy on the pandemic.

“We brought back masks last week but it wasn’t enough’, said Mr Rutte. “It was unavoidable that there would be more restrictions. It’s an unpleasant message, but the virus is everywhere and will have to be combatted everywhere.”

The new measures, which come into effect on Saturday, include a return to early closing at 8pm for cafes, restaurants, bars and supermarkets, and 6pm for other non-essential shops.

In a major U-turn, social distancing, which was abandoned just six weeks ago, is to be re-introduced in locations where digital Covid passes are not being used.

There will also be a return to restrictions on the numbers allowed in private homes, which will be confined to four at any one time.

Working from home will again be “urgently advised” wherever possible. This removes the government’s quandary about whether to apply the QR code system in workplaces.

No audiences will be allowed at sports events, including top-level football. This means that Tuesday evening’s World Cup qualifier between the Netherlands and Norway will take place in an empty stadium.

As anticipated, the government has held back from re-imposing the overnight curfew that led to several nights of rioting around the country and a series of court challenges when it was imposed towards the end of last January.

Pressure to re-introduce some form of restrictions has been growing for weeks as the number of new cases every 24 hours has ticked relentlessly upwards.

Intensive care specialists, heart surgeons and hospital administrators have all warned that the hospitals are in crisis – with essential procedures being delayed because resources are again being focused on Covid-19.

That was underlined on Thursday when the Netherlands recorded its highest daily level of new cases since the pandemic began – at 16,324, more than 3,000 higher than the previous record on December 20th, 2020, at the height of the second wave.

Having been slow to take crucial early preventative measures, the Dutch government is now being criticised at home for being slow to begin booster jabs, which are not due to start until December with the over-80s.

However, they are the first to reintroduce restrictions. Austria warned on Thursday that it was just days away from placing millions of unvaccinated people in lockdown.

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