Coronavirus: Netherlands returns to 'unpleasant' partial lockdown after surge in COVID cases

People participate in the Unmute Us! march to protest against Covid-19 policy across the Netherlands In Amsterdam, on September 11, 2021. - - Netherlands OUT (Photo by Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by SEM VAN DER WAL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
Thousands of people joined the Unmute Us! march to protest against COVID-19 policy across the Netherlands on September 11. Restrictions were lifted shortly after but have now been reimposed (Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP)

The Netherlands has imposed Western Europe's first partial lockdown since the summer in a bid to stop a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Cases in the country have increased markedly since social distancing measures were dropped in September, leading the government to make a sharp U-turn on lifting restrictions.

Restrictions will be reimposed from Saturday evening for a minimum of three weeks.

It comes amid warnings that Europe has become the epicentre of the pandemic again.

According to the the Dutch news site Dutch News, prime minister Mark Rutte said a “short, sharp shock” was needed to reduce infection rates.

“The measures will have an impact on many people,’ he said. ‘We have had long and intensive talks because there are so many interests at stake. It is very complicated.”

New coronavirus infections in the country of 17.5 million people have increased rapidly in recent weeks and hit a record of around 16,300 in 24 hours on Thursday.

The new wave of infections has put pressure on hospitals throughout the country, forcing them to scale back regular care to free up staff to treat COVID-19 patients.

Protesters in Amsterdam demanding Climate action, on November 6, 2021 (Photo by Oscar Brak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Protesters in Amsterdam demanding Climate action, on November 6 (Oscar Brak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In July, the Netherlands was forced to reintroduce restrictions two weeks after lifting them, following an unprecedented 769% growth in cases.

From Saturday evening, bars and restaurants will close early and large events will be held without audiences under the three-week partial lockdown.

People will be urged to work from home as much as possible, and no audiences will be allowed at sporting events in the coming weeks, including top-level football matches. Schools, theatres and cinemas will remain open.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said: "Tonight we have a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching decisions."

He warned of the consequences of citizens being unvaccinated, saying: "They are 17 times more likely to end up in hospital and 33 times more likely to end up in an IC unit."

A fresh lockdown is a significant turn in policy for the Dutch government, which until last month hoped that a relatively high vaccination rate would mean it could further ease measures towards the end of the year.

The nation is not alone in returning to strict measures as infections spike to record levels.

The Austrian government announced on Friday it was placing millions of unvaccinated people in lockdown.

Around 85% of the adult Dutch population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Booster shots have so far only been provided to a small group of people with weak immune systems, and will be offered to people aged 80 years and older in December.

Europe accounts for more than half of the average 7-day infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to the Reuters news agency, the highest levels since April last year when the virus was at its initial peak in Italy.

However, there has been a low vaccine take-up in some parts on the continent, waning immunity among those inoculated early and complacency about masks and distancing as governments relaxed curbs over the summer.

"If there's one thing to learn from this it's not to take your eye off the ball," said Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School in the UK.

The UK government has refused to rule out a fourth lockdown but is sticking to its COVID Plan A.

Ministers have so far stopped short of implementing Plan B of reintroducing social distancing and the mandatory use of face coverings indoors.

The booster campaign for vaccinations has been cited as a key part of maintaining more freedoms. Almost 11 million third doses have now been received across the UK.

However experts have raised fears over the pace of the rollout, warning that millions of eligible people have not yet had their third jab.

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