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Netherlands to ease Covid restrictions from today as WHO says Omicron risk remains 'very high'

Bars, restaurants and museums in the country will be allowed to reopen from today.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 26th 2022, 8:15 AM

THE NETHERLANDS WILL this week lift some of Europe’s toughest Covid restrictions with bars, restaurants and museums allowed to reopen their doors, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said.

Rutte said the move, which takes effect from today, was in response to “great tensions” with the catering and cultural sectors over a virtual lockdown imposed days before Christmas.

“The Netherlands has missed you,” Rutte told a news conference.

“Today we are taking a big step to further unlock the Netherlands. That feels contradictory while the contamination figures are going through the roof, and we have to be clear that we are taking a risk,” he added.

Anger mounted after Dutch shops, gyms, hairdressers and sex workers were allowed to resume business on 15 January, but other venues had to stay shut.

Cafes in several cities opened in defiance of the restrictions the weekend before last, while dozens of museums even opened as beauty salons for a day in protest.

nijmegen-netherlands-14th-jan-2022-a-view-of-the-cafe-van-buren-closed-terrace-during-the-hard-lockdown-tonight-the-cabinet-is-expected-to-announce-a-relaxation-of-the-coronavirus-rules-for-highe Cafes closed in Nijmegen. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Rutte said that the government was “consciously looking for the limits of what is possible, because of the great tensions and cries for help in recent days”.

While new infections are running at around 60,000 a day, fuelled by the Omicron variant, intensive care admissions and deaths have been falling in the Netherlands.

Health Minister Ernst Kuipers warned that it was “not the flu” and the situation remained sensitive, with hospitalisations rising again this week after a long period of decline.

But he said relaxing the curbs was important. “Living for longer with restrictive measures harms our health and our society,” said Kuipers.

Cafes, bars and restaurants can open again until 10pm from today, so long as patrons have a Covid pass, wear masks when not seated, and capacity is reduced, the government said.

Cinemas, theatres and museums may also welcome back customers, but nightclubs must stay closed for the time being.

demonstrators-take-part-in-a-protest-against-the-dutch-governments-restrictions-imposed-to-contain-the-spread-of-the-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-in-amsterdam-netherlands-january-16-2022-reute People protesting against lockdown restrictions in Amsterdam on 16 January. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Fans can also return to football matches and other professional sports, but stadium capacity will be limited.

Quarantine rules for schools will also be relaxed, with classes no longer having to shut if three or more cases are confirmed, and children under 18 need no longer isolate after contact with an infected person.

But the government is still urging people to work at home and limit the number of visitors to four.

The current measures will remain in place until at least 8 March.

World Health Organisation

It comes after the WHO said the risk level related to the Omicron variant remains very high, with the numbers of new Covid-19 cases hitting another record high last week.

“Over 21 million new cases were reported, representing the highest number of weekly cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic,” the World Health Organisation said in its weekly epidemiological coronavirus update.

The UN health agency said the number of new infections increased by 5% in the week to Sunday – compared to the 20% rise registered the week before.

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“A slower increase in case incidence was observed at the global level,” the WHO said.

Nearly 50,000 new deaths were also reported, it added – a similar figure to the week before.

The report said Omicron continued to increase its dominance globally over the other variants of concern.

“The current global epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 is characterised by the dominance of the Omicron variant on a global scale, continued decline in the prevalence of the Delta variant, and very low-level circulation of Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants,” the WHO said.

“Countries that experienced a rapid rise in Omicron cases in November and December 2021 have been or are beginning to see declines in cases.

However, “based on the currently available evidence, the overall risk related to the Omicron variant remains very high”.

The WHO said that of samples collected in the last 30 days that have been sequenced and uploaded to the GISAID global science initiative, Omicron accounted for 89.1%.

Delta – previously the world’s dominant variant – now makes up 10.7%.

© AFP 2022 

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