Dutch extend coronavirus curbs until February 9

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the extension of the lockdown was hardly a surprise

The Netherlands is extending coronavirus restrictions until February 9 as infections are still high and the government is "very concerned" about the UK variant of the disease, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday.

Under the current restrictions, which were due to expire on January 18, schools have been closed, all but essential shops are closed, and people are banned from having more than two people in their homes.

"I don't think I am going to surprise you this evening, we had to decide to extend the lockdown by three weeks," Rutte told a televised news conference.

Rutte said the decision was a "huge setback" and would be difficult for many people, especially businesses that have suffered during the pandemic.

But he added: "Almost everyone will understand that there was no other choice, because the numbers are not falling fast enough and we are now also dealing with the threat of the British coronavirus variant."

The government is also considering imposing an evening curfew and has asked public health authorities for their advice although it is still not keen on the idea, Rutte said.

Primary schools could reopen sooner, on January 25 at the earliest, but the government is still looking into whether that is possible, Rutte said.

The Dutch restrictions are the country's toughest since the beginning of the pandemic. For much of last year it endorsed an "intelligent lockdown" that was more relaxed than its European neighbours.

But it has been hit hard by the second and third waves of the disease and now introduced measures that are almost as tough as those in neighbouring Germany and Belgium.

The Dutch premier said reports about the spread in Britain and Ireland of a new coronavirus variant were "alarming", with around 100 cases found in the Netherlands so far.

"We are very concerned about this variant. The images from London and also from Ireland are alarming. And that is an understatement," Rutte said.

The Dutch general election due to be held in March should still be able to go ahead despite the extension of the restrictions, Rutte said.

"We will really do everything we can to allow the elections to take place on 17 March, and to let them take place safely," he said.

amo-dk/ach