The Netherlands has entered into a strict lockdown in response to the threat from the Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 just days before Christmas, driving desperate Dutch shopkeepers to demand government reimbursements for lost sales, as the new variant continues to spread across European nations.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared the shutdown in a Dec. 18 announcement, ordering the closure of all non-essential services, including gyms, hairdressers, restaurants, and other public places. While the lockdown is expected to last till Jan. 24, 2022, the news came as a shock to many people as they rushed to get a last-minute haircut and stock up on holiday essentials.
“I stand here tonight in a somber mood. And a lot of people watching will feel that way too,” Rutte told a news conference. “To sum it up in one sentence, the Netherlands will go back into lockdown from tomorrow.”
“I can now hear the whole of the Netherlands sighing. This is exactly one week before Christmas, another Christmas that is completely different from what we would like,” Rutte said on Dec. 18, while adding that a failure to lock down would likely lead to “an unmanageable situation in hospitals.”
Hospitals in the country have apparently been canceling operations for fear that Omicron cases may overrun the number of available beds. Omicron is spreading throughout the Netherlands, and is expected to be the dominant variant by the end of 2021. There have already been weeks of curfew to curb the spread of the latest variant.
Currently, more than 85 percent of all Dutch adults are fully vaccinated with two shots. Less than 9 percent have gotten a booster shot, and the government is working toward accelerating the booster program.
Jaap van Dissel, head of the Dutch outbreak management team, said that the lockdown measures would give the government enough time to provide more booster shots, as well as prepare for an Omicron outbreak.
“As a country, we are best protected if as many people as possible get a booster vaccination,” he said. All Dutch adults would receive a booster invitation by Jan. 7.
According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health, the country has reported more than 20,000 deaths since the pandemic began, with more than 2.9 million cases registered.
No Celebrations for Shopkeepers
However, Dutch retailers and shopkeepers have expressed dismay at the government’s drastic move, especially during the most critical time of the year.
“Nowhere in Europe is there such a strict regime as in the Netherlands,” said Jan Meerman, director of Dutch retailers association INretail, told The Guardian.
“From a health perspective, I understand that something needs to be done, but then it is important that the cabinet also makes a grand financial gesture and generously reimburses entrepreneurs. As far as we are concerned, 100% compensation. Many colleagues are still heavily indebted from the first lockdowns, they can’t take this any more … They are broken by these harsh measures.”
The Dutch government offers financial compensation when there is a 30 percent loss in a quarter, when compared to the previous year, and wage support when the loss is 20 percent.
But, Gonny Eussen from the hairdressers’ union, claims that, since this is the end of the quarter, they wouldn’t be able to claim reimbursements, while, at the same time, losing out on the best financial time of year for businesses.
“Now, an important part of December is gone, but we did generate turnover for the rest of the fourth quarter. As a result, many entrepreneurs are probably not eligible for support, even though they miss out on the best weeks,” she told the media outlet.
In addition to strict limits on businesses, households are only allowed to host up to four visitors daily, aged 13 and over, during Dec. 24 to 26, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. For other days, only two visitors are permitted.
Events are not permitted other than funerals, weekly markets selling groceries, and professional sports matches with no spectators.
In neighboring Germany, while Omicron is spreading rapidly, the government has not imposed any lockdowns yet.
“No, we won’t have a lockdown like the Netherlands before Christmas,” Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told public broadcaster ARD. “But in fact, it’s like this: We will get a fifth wave.”
In Belgium, protestors turned out to oppose government restrictions. Demonstrators held up signs that read, “I’ve had my fair dose” and “enough is enough.”
The United Kingdom and Italy are considering new lockdown measures as the number of cases rises in a potential new wave.