THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a three-week partial lockdown Friday amid surging COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands, saying his government wants to “deliver a hard blow to the virus.”
The lockdown that begins Saturday night is the first to start in Western Europe since a new wave of infections began surging across parts of the continent.
Under the lockdown, bars, restaurants and supermarkets will have to close at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT), professional sports matches will be played in empty stadiums and people are being urged to work from home as much as possible. Stores selling non-essential items will have to close at 6 p.m.
“Tonight we have a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching decisions,” Rutte said.
As Rutte spoke, police in The Hague said they arrested a number of people protesting in a nearby street for setting off fireworks.
The Netherlands is not alone in taking measures to rein in soaring coronavirus infections.
Earlier Friday, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said his country will implement a lockdown for unvaccinated people in two hard-hit regions next week and looks poised to move forward with similar measures nationwide.
Starting Monday, unvaccinated people in the regions of Upper Austria and Salzburg will only be allowed to leave home for specific necessary reasons, such as buying groceries or going to the doctor.
Meanwhile, Germany’s disease control center is urging people to cancel or avoid large events and to reduce their contacts as the country’s coronavirus infection rate hits a string of new highs.
Speaking about the deteriorating situation in Europe at a press conference earlier Friday, Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization head of emergencies, said that “quite frankly, some countries are in such a difficult situation now that they’re going to find it hard not to put in place restrictive measures, at least for a short period of time, to reduce the intensity of transmission.”
Rutte also said that social distancing is returning. Masks are already widely mandated, including in shops and public transport.
Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that the government is also working on legislation to restrict access in some “high-risk” locations and events to people who can demonstrate they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 — and not allow people who have tested negative. Austria and parts of Germany already have similar restrictions in place.
Separately, the government announced Friday that it would bring forward the start of a campaign to administer booster shots of COVID-19 shots to older citizens and healthcare workers. The campaign had been set to start in December, but will now begin at the end of next week.
News of the possible move before the announcement had prompted fury among bar owners and sports administrators earlier Friday.
The Dutch soccer federation and top two professional leagues issued a statement expressing “great dismay” at the expected lockdown and insisting that soccer stadiums — which have strict COVID measures in place — are not a major source of infections.
“This looks like policy poverty,” the organizations said, adding that government officials “no longer know what to do.”
Rutte confirmed that a World Cup soccer qualifier between the Netherlands and Norway on Tuesday in Rotterdam would be played behind closed doors.
An organization representing bar and restaurant owners also slammed the government.
“Hospitality businesses are again being presented with the bill for failing government policy,” the group said in a statement.
On Thursday the country's public health institute recorded 16,364 new positive tests in 24 hours — the highest number of any time during the pandemic that has killed more than 18,600 people in the Netherlands.
The country, where nearly 85% of adults are fully vaccinated, largely ended lockdown restrictions at the end of September.
Follow AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.
Mike Corder, The Associated Press