Having been one of the last countries in Europe to introduce obligatory masks, the Netherlands could also become one of the slowest to begin Covid-19 vaccinations – now unlikely to start before the third week in January.
While premier Mark Rutte said earlier this month that the vaccination programme would begin straight after the new year, on January 4th, using one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 400,000 of the Moderna jab, that timetable has now apparently slipped substantially.
The UK has already begun vaccinating. Germany, France and Denmark plan to start before the year's end. However, the delay in the Netherlands, which has a population of 17 million, still seems to be mainly over who should be vaccinated first.
As a result of growing pressure, there’s now a suggestion that a small “symbolic” group of Dutch citizens – healthcare workers and those in at-risk categories, in particular – may receive the jab just before the end of the year, though that will not be part of the nationwide rollout.
“It is simply unimaginable why this plan is taking so long”, says vaccination expert Herman van der Weide, who was national programme manager for the 2009 Mexican flu inoculation programme – the largest ever carried out in the Netherlands.
“We already knew in March that a vaccine was on the way. That was when the planning should have begun, not in back rooms but with the actual organisations who’ll be involved in getting this to the population. A lot of time has been lost unnecessarily.”
Dutch clinician Prof Marcel Levi, chief executive of University College London's National Health Service Trust, which runs six hospitals, agreed: "It seems to me a very tricky signal you're giving when you have a working vaccine in your hands and you don't use it for weeks."
Health minister Hugo de Jonge, who recently resigned as newly appointed leader of the Christian Democrats to concentrate on the coronavirus campaign, defended the delay, however, saying staff were working "flat out" and a plan was expected next week.
“The success of the vaccine does not depend on starting a week earlier”, he responded. “It depends on being careful and safe - because caution is an important element in people’s acceptance of vaccines in general, and particularly in this case.”
The key issue now is whether the vaccinations should begin with the country’s nursing homes or with a national network of 25 “mass vaccination locations” where perhaps entire postcodes could be inoculated in a single day.
An additional bottleneck is being caused by the development of a digital registration system to track who’s being given which vaccine, a system that won’t be ready before the end of this month.