AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Shopping streets in the Netherlands were closed and people’s Christmas plans were in disarray as the country began a lockdown on Sunday aimed at limiting an expected COVID-19 surge caused by the rise of the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the sudden shut-down on Saturday evening, ordering the closure of all but the most essential stores, as well as restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, museums and other public places from Sunday until at least Jan. 14.
The news came as a shock to many Dutch people as they headed into the Christmas and New Year period. Many people rushed out on Saturday to stock up on presents and food and to get a last-minute haircut.
Hospitality workers demanded compensation for lost income in the holiday season, while gym owners stressed the importance of exercise during a health crisis.
“Closing all bars and restaurants in such an important month is incredibly painful and dramatic. We need compensation and an exit strategy”, the Dutch association for hospitality services said.
All schools will close a week early for the Christmas break on Monday and will remain shut until at least Jan. 9, while households are recommended to receive no more than two visitors and gatherings outside are also limited to a maximum of two.
Coronavirus infections in the Netherlands have dropped from record levels in recent weeks after a night-time lockdown was put in place late last month. But cases involving the Omicron variant have increased rapidly since the beginning of December and the strain is expected to become dominant before the end of the year.
This will pose a big problem for hospitals, which have been cancelling regular care for weeks as they try to avoid running out of beds due to the high numbers of COVID-19 patients on their wards.
The government said on Saturday said it would accelerate the administration of booster vaccine shots after a slow start of the campaign, and now aims to deliver extra shots to everyone over the age of 60 before the end of the month.
While more than 85% of the Dutch adult population is vaccinated, fewer than 9% of adults have so far had a booster shot, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Frances Kerry)