The Netherlands needs to step up its preparations for a new wave of coronavirus infections in the autumn or risk another lockdown, experts have warned.
Administrators said there was a lack of urgency among policymakers to fix problems, such as a shortage of intensive care beds, that hampered the Dutch pandemic response in the last two years.
‘Everybody seems to have fallen asleep, it’s a bit of a head-in-the-sand approach,’ David Jongen, vice-chairman of the hospitals’ association Vereniging van Ziekenhuizen told NOS.
There are currently 555 patients in hospital with Covid-19 infections, including 40 in intensive care, the lowest figures recorded since September 2020.
But left unchecked, a resurgence of the virus could force the government to take far-reaching measures again, as happened in October 2020, just three weeks after the patient levels were last below 600, as the Alpha variant took hold.
‘We have fewer colleagues to tackle the task than at the start of the pandemic,’ Joke Dieperik, a member of the intensive care nurses’ association V&VN-IC, said. ‘I’m very concerned about that because I don’t know if we can do it.’
The health ministry said in the latest evaluation of pandemic preparedness last month that it was ‘not realistic’ to expect an increase in healthcare staffing in the next few years.
The government also faces losing a key weapon in the fight against the pandemic next week when the Senate is expected to vote against extending the coronavirus act, which has been the legal basis for all pandemic controls since December 2020.
The coalition needs the support of at least one opposition party to secure another three-month extension, but Labour (PvdA) and GroenLinks, who voted in favour in March, have signalled they will vote against continuing the rules in June.
Without the coronavirus act the government would be unable to reintroduce basic prevention measures such as social distancing, restricted opening hours or face masks mandates, without a new vote in parliament.
Epidemiologist Frits Rosendaal said health minister Ernst Kuipers should do more to warn the public of the potential risks of a new outbreak now rather than wait until infections start to rise, to avoid the kind of confrontational debates that characterised the first two years of the pandemic.
‘That’s what they’re doing in Denmark, where they have drawn up scenarios and clearly communicated what measures they will bring in as things happen,’ he said. ‘It means you don’t have to chuck everything at the problem in a panic, which leaves everyone surprised and angry.’
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