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Little room for change in coronavirus rules, new health minister says

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – New health minister Ernst Kuipers has told reporters there is little room to relax the current lockdown rules because of the high coronavirus infection rates.

Although fewer coronavirus patients are currently being taken into hospital in the Netherlands, in countries where Omicron has already peaked, hospital admissions are now rising.

However, Kuipers said, he is prepared to look at what can be done and that he has asked the Outbreak Management Team for new recommendations. The OMT is due to meet on Wednesday and there will be a new press conference outlining the latest situation on Friday.

Kuipers also hinted that he may perhaps have a different approach to his predecessor Hugo de Jonge, telling reporters that ‘the solution for managing the pandemic is far wider than healthcare’.

Other models of how the pandemic may progress, which look outside infection numbers and hospital admissions, may also be useful in assessing strategy he said, and the economic impact will also be looked at.

Nevertheless, while increasing capacity in hospitals buys time, eventually you will have to take measures and developing long term strategy is also a priority, he said.

Coronavirus, he said, had highlighted the shortcomings in the current Dutch healthcare system and the need for new solutions to solve capacity and access issues outside the pandemic.


The new government will also consider the OMT’s recommendations new recommendations on the wider use of masks, when ministers meet ahead of Friday’s press conference.

The advisory group said on Monday that textile masks should be replaced by medical masks and should also be worn outdoors in busy places and at demonstrations. The AD points out in an editorial that OMT boss Jaap van Dissel had opposed the use of masks for much of 2020, and the Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to make their use compulsory in some situations.

The Dutch dithering, the paper says, meant the debate about masks took place on the street, rather than within the cabinet offices, and that in turn sowed doubt about their effectiveness in general.

‘It is up to our new health minister,’ the paper said, ‘to get the genie back into the bottle.’

Not for sale

Meanwhile, news website Nu.nl reports that the Netherlands’ biggest high street chemist chains and other retailers have few type 2 medical masks in stock. ‘We were not allowed to sell this type of mask for a long time,’ a spokesman for Kruidvat and Trekpleister told the website.

‘We do have some now, but as a service to healthcare workers.’ Etos and Albert Heijn said they are now trying to source the masks, while Jumbo also said it had none. The stores do have FFP2 masks, which the OMT is recommending for use indoors, in stock but say demand has been soaring in recent days.



Coronavirus cases surge in under-30s, one in seven have been infected before

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – More than 200,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in the first full week of January, a record figure and 77% higher than the previous week.

The latest weekly bulletin from the public health agency RIVM shows the Omicron variant causing a surge in infections, but hospital admissions are continuing to decline steadily.

The rise in positive tests was concentrated in younger age groups, with infections more than doubling in people aged 15 to 30. Around one person in 30 in the 20-25 age group had a positive test in the last week.

By contrast, cases rose marginally or even declined in older generations, with fewer than one in 500 people over 75 testing positive.

More than one in three tests (34.2%) was positive, the highest proportion recorded in a single week since mass testing began.

There was also considerable variation between regions, with the infection rate ranging from 630 per 100,000 people in southern Limburg to more than 2,000 in Amsterdam, where an estimated 99% of infections are caused by Omicron.

The RIVM said Omicron was now thought to be the dominant strain in the Netherlands, although comprehensive data is only available up to December 26, when it accounted for 28% of cases.

The figures also show an unprecedented number of people are catching the virus for the second or subsequent time. Reinfections accounted for around 3% of the total until mid-December, but that proportion shot up to 13% in the first week of January.

The R value of Omicron is estimated to be more than double that of the declining Delta variant, with reproduction rates of 1.63 for Omicron and 0.78 for Delta – meaning every three people with Omicron go on to infect five others.

Hospital admissions

The declining rate of hospital admissions has meant the number of people being treated for coronavirus has almost halved in the last month to 1,497, from a peak of 2,848 on December 9.

The number of patients in intensive care fell by 10 on Tuesday to 395, the first time since mid-November that it has been below 400. In the last seven days 893 people were taken to hospital with Covid-19, while 143 were admitted to intensive care.

The figures for the previous week were 1,046 and 171 respectively. Another 116 deaths were recorded by the RIVM, down from 189 the week before, though not all deaths are included in the figures from the GGD regional health network.



Vaccines and ventilation lagging behind as children return to school

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Netherlands’ vaccination programme for children under 12 has been delayed because the health ministry did not order the first doses from Pfizer until late in December, NRC reports.

The ministry said it held off with the order until the health advisory council (Gezondheidsraad) ruled on December 10 that the benefits of vaccinating children aged 5 and over outweighed the disadvantages, two weeks after the European Medicines Agency came to the same decision.

Most primary school children will receive their first dose in the week of January 24, two weeks after returning to school, with the first batch of 800,000 vaccines due to be delivered this month.

The delay is reminiscent of last year, when the Netherlands was the last country in the EU to begin vaccinating its adult population against coronavirus.


A spokesman for the ministry told NRC that it waited until the advisory body’s ruling before ordering the first large-scale batch of vaccines. A smaller batch of 42,000 doses was ordered earlier for children who were at high risk because of conditions such as Down’s syndrome.

The ministry also blamed the delay on uncertainty about the take-up rate for young children, who need their parents’ permission to be vaccinated, and the logistical challenge of distributing hundreds of thousands of doses.

The issue was further complicated by the need to run the vaccine programme for children alongside the booster campaign for adults. ‘We received the 800,000 children’s doses instead of regular Pfizer vaccines,’ the spokesman said.

Ventilation concerns

Meanwhile, a new body set up to monitor the implementation of education policy warned that only 25% of schools were properly ventilated as children returned to the classroom on Monday.

The Platform Perspectief Jongeren (PPJ) said it was unclear who was ultimately responsible for improving ventilation in schools. Proper ventilation was essential to make classrooms safe and avoid a repeat of last year’s national shutdown, committee member Sven Annen said.

‘If you create a safe school environment, and ventilation is an important part of that, you can say the schools are safe and remove the option of closing them.’ Many schools had not come up with ventilation plans because they were short of money for the renovation work, Annen said.

The government has earmarked €360 million for improving ventilation, but individual schools can only claim up to 30% of the total cost, with the rest coming from their own or local authority budgets.

The average cost of a new ventilation system is around €500,000 for a primary school and €1.5 million for a secondary school, according to an earlier study commissioned by the education ministry.

‘In many cases it is unclear who is ultimately responsible,’ Annen said. ‘It has been clear for quite a while that there are problems with ventilation at some schools. But because the responsibility lies with several parties, there have been few new plans and projects.

‘Some schools and municipalities have reported that the money that has been made available is not sufficient.”



Wear a medical mask in busy outdoor places, government advisors say

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Government coronavirus advisors are recommending face masks be worn in busy outdoor spaces and at all times in indoor public areas where people from different households mingle.

The new recommendations have been published ahead of the January 14 deadline, when the government will outline its strategy for dealing with the surge in Omicron cases, which are up some 50% on a week ago.

The recommendations are a break with earlier strategy, which only calls for masks to be worn in shops, public buildings and on public transport. Now the Outbreak Management Team says masks should be worn in all busy places where social distancing is impossible, such as in shopping areas, at markets and during demonstrations.

Indoors in public places too, everyone over the age of 13 should wear a mask continuously, even if they are sitting down, the OMT says. This includes colleges and universities, cafes, cultural institutions, offices and at indoor events.

Most of these are currently closed because of the lockdown. In addition, masks should be of type 2 medical standard rather than cloth, because these ‘offer slightly better protection against the emission of virus particles’ than non-medical masks and also offer more protection to the wearer, the OMT said.

Type 2 medical masks include the light blue pleated masks widely available in shops and pharmacies. Vulnerable people, however, should use a thicker FFP2 medical mask when possible, even though there are drawbacks to their prolonged use, such as breathing difficulties, the OMT said.


The OMT also says that if three children in a primary school class are diagnosed as having coronavirus, then the entire class should go into quarantine. Schools reopened on Monday following the extended Christmas break.

The OMT is due to meet again on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments and the new government will decide whether or not to adopt the new recommendations on January 14, when the current coronavirus regulations are up for review.



Over-fours to be offered coronavirus vaccine from January 25: ANP

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Netherlands is to start inviting vaccinating children aged five to 11 in the week of January 25, public health institute RIVM has told news agency ANP.

The first appointments can be made from January 18, and parents will be invited to make a date for all their offspring at the same time, ANP said. In total, 1.3 million children are eligible for the vaccination.

The cabinet took the decision to extend the vaccination programme to all younger children last month, following recommendations from the national health council Gezondheidsraad. Until then, the focus had been on children with underlying health problems.

The health council said that children will have direct and indirect benefits from being vaccinated. In particular, vaccination will slash the risk of possibly 100 to 150 children developing MIS-C, a serious multi-organ inflammatory syndrome, the council said.

Children aged five to 11 will be given one third of the adult vaccine dose. Indirectly, vaccinating children will reduce the spread of the virus in schools, sports clubs and society in general, so allowing some restrictions to be eased, the council said.

Children will not, however, be required to show a coronavirus pass to enter events or a café, once the current strict measures are lifted.



New Covid cases soar again, but hospital admissions continue to decline

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Almost 35,000 positive coronavirus tests were registered with public health institute RIVM in the 24 hours to Friday morning, but this includes some cases from earlier this week when reporting was disrupted by an IT failure.

Nevertheless, the total of 34,954 is up 10,000 on Wednesday’s figure, when there were no reported IT problems, and which was a new record. The rise takes the number of positive cases this week to an average of 21,487 a day, up 63% on the previous seven-day period.

Despite the rise in positive cases, hospital admissions continue to decline. On Friday morning, 1,526 people were being treated for coronavirus in hospital, down 25 on Thursday’s total.

Of them, 419 are being treated on an IC ward, according to figures from patient registration agency LCPS. The government imposed tough new restrictions on the Netherlands in December in an effort to head off a surge in hospital admissions while the booster campaign got up to speed.

And health officials said at the start of this week they expected a new peak in hospitals mid-January. So far, however, there is no sign that hospital admissions will start going up again.


In Britain the number of infections appears to be levelling off at around 180,000 a day, which would mean a plateau of 45,000 cases a day if transferred to the situation in the Netherlands.

In Denmark too, infections appear to be levelling off, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst told broadcaster NOS. There are around 19,000 cases a day in Denmark, which would translate to 57,000 in the Netherlands.

Both Britain and Denmark have far fewer restrictions than the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the government’s coronavirus dashboard shows some 38% of adults have now had a booster dose.



Wages failed to keep up with inflation in 2021, hospitality workers hard hit

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Wages rose by an average of 2.1% last year, national statistics agency CBS said on Thursday.

Pay rises agreed in centralised negotiations between unions and employers averaged 2.2% in the first six months of the year and 1.9% in the second half, the CBS said.

Given inflation was around 2.4% last year, wages failed to keep pace with the rise in consumer prices. Hospitality industry wages rose just 0.3%, as coronavirus shut down cafes and restaurants for much of the year and called a halt to tourism.

The biggest increase – 3.4% – was in the sector ‘other services’ which, the CBS points out, includes lobby groups, launderettes and the funeral sector.



Conspiracy theorist visit was ‘absurd and frightening’, says Kaag

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – D66 leader Sigrid Kaag issued a statement on Thursday afternoon describing the incident outside her home on Wednesday evening as ‘absurd and frightening’.

A 29-year-old conspiracy theorist was arrested for turning up at the door of Kaag’s private home, waving a burning piece of wood and shouting abuse. He will appear in court on Friday for a remand hearing.

Kaag said her family experienced the incident as being ‘very intimidating’. The constant threats being made against politicians are undermining the rule of law, she said. ‘We cannot let this happen in silence.’

She also directed comments at those making the threats, who she said, ‘are making our society unsafe’.

The man, named on social media as Max van den B, rang the doorbell and was ranting about the World Economic Forum and the Dutch Nazi party NSB. The same man was also picked up near the house of outgoing health minister Hugo de Jonge last month.

He was recognised from the footage live-streamed of both events on social media. The 27-year-old is also said to be a frequent attendee at anti-coronavirus measure demonstrations.

De Jonge told reporters on Thursday the blame for the event can be laid at the door of far-right party Forum voor Democratie. The party’s MPs have been calling for ‘tribunals’ and ‘locking politicians up’ in a string of speeches in recent weeks.


The increase in threats against MPs and politicians is ‘extremely worrying’ De Jonge said. The words chosen by FvD are not ‘without danger’ and some people feel legitimised in directing threats at politicians, De Jonge said.

Asked if it was justified to point a finger at FvD, De Jonge said ‘yes’. ‘We all know the words they have used, we all know their political methods,’ he said. Kaag, who will be sworn in as the new finance minister on Monday, is currently in quarantine because of a coronavirus case ‘in her close circle’.



Booster programme ‘up to speed’ but not everyone will have one

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – All adults in the Netherlands can now make an appointment for a booster vaccine and more than four million people have already received their third jab, according to government figures.

Outgoing health minister Hugo de Jonge had promised that everyone over the age of 18 in the country would be able to make an appointment for their booster vaccine by January 9, 2022.

But as of yesterday, anyone born in 2003 and earlier could do so. Some 30% of the adult population have already received their booster shot and public health agency RIVM expects that number will increase rapidly in the coming days.

Susan van den Hof told broadcaster NOS that the campaign is ‘up to speed’. The government is aiming for a 90% booster rate, which, computer modelling suggests, would lead to a substantial fall in hospital admissions and infections.

‘We are in a lockdown to win time for boosters, but if we don’t vaccinate, we are not making the most of it,’ Groningen University vaccine expert Anke Huckriede told RTL Nieuws.

‘Then we will have problems in the hospitals again.’ In addition, around one million people, according to press agency ANP are ineligible for the booster because they have recently had coronavirus, or their second shot was less than three months ago.

The RIVM advises that people wait for three months after recovery before getting a vaccination. Contrary to rumors, the government has not changed its policy regarding waiting times following vaccination.

You are still advised to wait 15 minutes after your shot to ensure no adverse reactions.



Coronavirus infections in the Netherlands hit new record at almost 25,000

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – A record 24,590 positive coronavirus tests were reported to public health institute RIVM in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning – the highest ever figure in a single day.

The total is up almost 6,000 on Tuesday. The previous record of 23,713 dates from November 24 and there were more than 20,000 positive tests on December 6. The Wednesday total takes the weekly average to nearly 17.500 a day, which is up 41% on the previous seven-day period.

The RIVM said in its weekly update on Tuesday that the number of positive tests was up 35%, week on week. Amsterdam had the highest number of positive tests with 2,264 new cases in 24 hours.

Tough anti-coronavirus measures have been in effect in the Netherlands since December 19 to give health officials enough time to get the booster campaign up to speed, ahead of the expected surge in Omicron variant cases.


On Tuesday, government health experts warned people not to expect measures to be lifted when they are reassessed next week because of the expected rise in positive tests.

Meanwhile, judges in The Hague have rejected a claim by anti-coronavirus measure campaigners to lift the lockdown measures. The state has wide-ranging powers to take such decisions if it is necessary in the public interest, the court said.


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