THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Netherlands will relax some of the toughest Covid restrictions in Europe after hospitalisations dropped despite a surge in Omicron variant cases, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday.
Shops, gyms, hairdressers, sex workers and sports clubs will be allowed to do business until 5pm daily from Saturday, nearly a month after they were shut down over the Christmas and New Year period.
But bars, restaurants, cafes and cultural locations will however remain closed until at least January 25, Rutte told the first press conference since a new government was sworn in earlier this week.
Rutte said the relaxation was an “exciting moment” for the Netherlands, which has been under what the government calls a lockdown since the restrictions were tightened on December 19.
Higher education can also reopen. Schools reopened on January 10.
New Health Minister Ernst Kuipers said the government had decided to start reopening society, with Covid hospital admissions falling despite infections hitting a record 35,521 new cases a day on Friday.
The number of hospital patients dropped to its lowest level in more than two months on Friday, at 1,289, with 335 in intensive care, Dutch media said.
But Rutte said that it was too soon to open bars and other catering establishments, warning that new cases could soon reach 75,000 or 80,000 a day when things start to reopen.
“What we do now, very simply, is look at the intensity and duration of the contact — and of course that is different for shops than for the catering industry, in a theatre or in a hall,” Rutte said.
“So we had to make that choice. If you were to do all that now, the number of infections would really rise too much.” The Dutch government will decide on January 25 whether to reopen the catering sector, said Rutte, acknowledging there had been “pressure on all sides” to do so sooner.
Several Dutch cities have said they will not stop hard-hit cafes and restaurants from reopening during the daytime this Saturday as a one-day exception in defiance of the government rules, but will crack down again after that.
The tough Dutch restrictions have caused tensions, with riots in major cities in November.