Hopes that the toughest coronavirus restrictions, including a controversial nightly curfew, were on the verge of being lifted have been dashed by the caretaker Dutch government – amid expert warnings that the country’s continuing failure to reduce infections is “very concerning”.
"When we see new cases falling daily, then we'll be over the peak of the third wave," said prime minister Mark Rutte, in an update on the pandemic on Tuesday evening. "We cannot risk creating an impossible situation in hospitals, so we will judge this week by week."
A government briefing to a Dutch news agency had raised hopes of an easing from April 21st – something that was seized upon by hospitality associations and by the mayors of cities increasingly concerned about crowd control.
This was acknowledged by Mr Rutte, still chastened by a political row that led to the collapse of his four-party coalition in January and which still leaves a question mark over whether he will again emerge as prime minister at the end of recently restarted talks.
“We each have our own Covid reality,” he said. “We are losing patience and we are finding it more difficult to stick to the rules. The first step in reopening society will be lifting the curfew, reopening pavement cafes and having more than one visitor at home. But April 21st is still too soon.”
What changed the government’s mind were figures from the public health institute that showed a 6 per cent rise in new cases to 51,240 in the week to Tuesday, April 13th – which signalled the resumption of an upward trend continuing since January, despite a slight decline early this month.
At the same time, the number of deaths reported was up 20 per cent, from 142 to 174. And, as noted by Mr Rutte, some 70 per cent of intensive care beds are currently occupied by coronavirus patients.
"We see this as a very concerning situation where the number of infections is still high and doesn't seem to be declining," said Dr Susan Hof, head of epidemiology at the health institute. "We're on a very high plateau, waiting for the moment when the figures start to fall again."
The government now hopes that moment will come before April 28th, its new target for the first phase of easing, though both Mr Rutte and health minister Hugo de Jonge said that date was “not set in stone”.
After a confused start to vaccinations, Mr de Jonge said the figures were improving, with 630,000 jabs delivered in the past week, bringing the total to 3.9 million. This was "in step with Europe", and in relative terms higher than France or Germany.