Late last month, the Dutch government lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions in the country. People were no longer mandated to wear face masks, nightly curfews were lifted, and the flailing hospitality industry was given a chance to recover as restaurants, nightclubs and pubs opened at full capacity. Now, a little over two weeks later, the country is facing an unprecedented crisis as cases explode like never before, forcing the government to backtrack and reimpose curbs again.
Infections skyrocketed by more than 500 per cent in the last week alone, prompting an apology from the country’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte for acting in haste. “What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice,” he said. “We had poor judgement, which we regret and for which we apologise.”
The main victims of the recent surge have been the country’s youth. According to the Dutch government, a majority of new cases were among people aged 18-29. Almost four in 10 cases have been linked to bars and nightclubs.
A weekly update released by the national public health institute showed that nearly 52,000 people had tested positive for Covid-19 over the last week. The Netherlands is among several European nations that are currently combating a surge in cases, largely attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.
The sudden spike in cases across the Netherlands coincided with the government’s decision to withdraw restrictions almost completely. On June 26, the government announced the fourth phase of its reopening plan. This included lifting restrictions on the number of visitors that can be invited home, withdrawing the mandatory usage of face masks in most situations, and most significantly, reopening hospitality venues and permitting events. The only restriction that remained was a mandatory 1.5-metre social distancing norm.
However, there is a slight glimmer of hope. Despite the surge in cases, there has not been a significant rise in hospital admissions or deaths. Hospitalisations increased by 11 per cent over the past week, according to the Dutch Institute for Public Health. Deaths still remain at around two per day, which has been the average since mid-June. But the government has warned that as cases rise, hospital admissions, too, could see an uptick in the near future.
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Why is the resurgence of the country’s nightlife being linked to the recent surge?
The Dutch government has blamed “nightlife settings and parties” for the surge. According to the data released by the Dutch public health institute, four in 10 of the new infections were contracted in bars and clubs. The cases were focused amongst the youth — a 262 per cent surge was observed in the 18-24 category, while a 191 per cent rise was recorded amongst the 25-29 age group.
Soon after restrictions were lifted in nightclubs, cases rose twelvefold — reaching an all-time high this year. From 806 cases recorded on July 1, more than 3,600 new infections were detected on July 7, according to a report by the Independent. By July 10, cases rose to 10,345.
More than 1,000 cases were linked to a popular music festival in Utrecht earlier this month. This is despite the fact that the two day Verknipt outdoor festival required all 20,000 attendees to present a QR code that confirmed whether they had been vaccinated, contracted the illness recently or had a negative Covid test report.
The QR code system was followed at most nightclubs as well. In fact, the government blamed young people for faking QR codes just to get into these venues. But some experts are blaming the country’s Covid testing system, which could be reporting too many false negatives.
The country’s Outbreak Management Team (OMT), which is responsible for handling the pandemic, said that the government’s ‘test for entry’ approach would not work as the rapid antigen tests had a failure rate of around 20 per cent, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported.
On Monday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted that the government had made a mistake by scrapping coronavirus restrictions. This marked a drastic change in stance as Rutte had earlier defended the easing of restrictions as a “logical step”, and had denied that his government had any role to play in the surge. With cases hitting a record high, the government reimposed curbs, starting with shutting nightclubs and prohibiting big events.
OMT officials had earlier criticised the country’s Health Minister Hugo de Jonge for encouraging young people to take the single-dose shot manufactured by Johnson & Johnson and Janssen using the catchphrase ‘dansen met Janssen’ (which translates to dancing with Janssen), which implied that they could go out to party sooner.
Despite the sharp rise in cases, the number of vaccines being administered across the country has petered out in the last few weeks. An average of around 176,000 people have received their shot in the last seven days, which is almost 10 per cent below the target, and more than a third lower than four weeks ago, according to a report by Dutch newspaper NLTimes.
Among the country’s adult population, more than 46 per cent are fully vaccinated and at least 77 per cent have had at least one shot. The vaccination drive appears to be slowing down as it opens up for younger people, who are less enthusiastic about receiving the jab.