Dutch PM extends coronavirus lockdown by three weeks

THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS (AP) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte extended his country’s tough five-week lockdown by a further three weeks on Tuesday amid concerns that infection rates are not falling quickly enough and fears about the new more transmissible variant first detected in the United Kingdom (UK).

“Almost everybody will understand that there was no other choice because numbers are not falling fast enough and we are now also have to face the threat of the British corona variant,” Rutte said, as he said the lockdown will last until February 9.

Under the lockdown, all schools and nonessential shops are closed, along with public venues such as cinemas, museums and libraries. There also are strict limits on the size of gatherings both indoors and outside.

Rutte said that for the students who are still allowed to attend class — children preparing for their final high school exams and vulnerable children — 1.5-metre social distancing will now apply in schools, where possible.

He added that the government has asked health authorities for advice about whether a curfew would help drive down infection rates, raising the possibility of a curfew — something that the government has so far avoided during the pandemic — in the future.

“We are in a serious new situation,” Rutte said, referring to soaring infections in Britain. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that the variant now makes up two-five per cent of Dutch infections. but “the expectation is that it will, just as in England, get the upper hand”.

Rutte’s announcement came hours after the Dutch public health institute announced that the number of new coronavirus infections in the country had fallen for the second week in a row, calling the decrease “the first effect” of the nationwide lockdown that began in mid-December.

Municipal Health Service GGD employee administers a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a healthcare worker at a coronavirus vaccination facility in Netherlands. PHOTO: AP