Back in May, as the first wave of coronavirus was receding, the Dutch government came under pressure to reopen cafes for the Ascension Day weekend – a week earlier than the planned date of June 1. The answer came back firmly: no, it would be irresponsible to speed up the schedule just as the infection rate was being brought under control. The same happened to the football clubs’ hopes of being allowed to play out the football season in April. Mark Rutte’s tone was sober but uncompromising: nobody was exempt from the ban on public events. Public health would not be jeopardised for short-term economic gain.
The ‘intelligent lockdown’ – a swift, targeted shutdown followed by a closely monitored release staggered over several months – seemed in June to be one of the most successful responses to the outbreak. The country narrowly avoided the kind of devastating scenes witnessed in Italian and Spanish hospitals, largely because it learned the lessons from those countries just in time. Rutte stressed the importance of flexibility and responsiveness in setting out the government’s ‘maximum control’ strategy in his televised address on March 16: ‘It’s possible that some measures can be relaxed, but that we may also have to take new steps to prevent the virus proceeding unchecked.’ In two months the Dutch went from having one of the highest deaths per capita in the world to less than five a week. All this was achieved without recourse to some of the draconian measures seen elsewhere in Europe, such as closing high streets and repressive fines for leaving the house. The economic impact was also, by European standards, relatively mild: the Dutch economy is forecast to contract by 5% this year against a Eurozone average of 8.3%. Public health and economic security were seen as a common objective, not opposing forces.
Scientists had warned that a rise in infections in the autumn was highly likely. The government promised it had learned the lessons of the outbreak in March and would not be caught unprepared by a second wave. An early warning in August, when reported cases jumped from around 200 to 600 a day in 10 days, was brushed aside on the grounds that all was quiet on the hospital wards. Now autumn has arrived, the second wave has swept in with a vengeance and the government has been caught hopelessly unprepared. The track and trace app promised for the start of July has gone off track and vanished without trace. Testing has stalled at 190,000 a week just as the positive test rate swells to 6.1%. More new infections are announced per day than were recorded in a month over the summer. Hospital admissions are rising again and nearly 100 coronavirus patients are being treated in intensive care. Thirty-three people died of Covid-19 in the third week of September, more than double the number the week before. The intelligent lockdown has given way to a strategy of dither, delay, improvise and hope for the best.
Whereas at the start of the pandemic ministers acted swiftly and decisively – restaurants, bars and even brothels were given less than an hour’s notice to send their customers home – over the summer the emphasis shifted from avoiding a second wave to avoiding a second lockdown. Protection of public health again came to be seen as at odds with economic interests, with the result that we now face both a second wave and a second lockdown. Worse, the government is losing sight of the spread of the virus. The proportion of infections whose source is known has dropped from nearly half in June to less than 25% by the third week of September. Rutte often described the response to the pandemic in the spring as ‘navigating by sight’, but the availability of a dashboard of metrics has not improved the captain’s vision.
As infections pass 2,000 a day, the government’s response has been to close the bars at 1am and allow public gatherings of up to 50 people. Even the beleaguered UK, which has Europe’s highest death rate but has been faring comparatively well since the summer, has managed a more robust response than this. Schools remain open and commuters have been drifting back towards the office, where the rate of transmission has been rising. Observance of social distancing rules has waned, not least because the government no longer has the resolve to reinforce them. Community wardens have more or less given up enforcing the measures since the justice minister, Ferd Grapperhaus, was photographed embracing his mother-in-law at his wedding in September. This week Grapperhaus was fined for breaching the rules he announced in a fire-breathing performance at a press conference in April.
In June the KNVB drew up a plan to allow limited numbers of supporters back into stadiums for the start of the new season in September. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to reinstate competitive football, but raced ahead of other European leagues where matches are still played in front of empty stands. Rutte warned that if fans failed to abide by the rules, which included a ban on singing, chanting and cheering during matches, the stadiums would close again. Yet when 13,000 supporters were filmed standing and cheering during Feyenoord’s match against FC Twente at the weekend, the prime minister’s reaction was a peevish injunction to ‘keep your trap shut during the game’. Only a government that had lost all sense of attachment to reality could seriously expect football fans to react to a goal or a red card with contemplative silence.
The decision to reopen stadiums, taken at a time when infections were low and falling, has become an ironclad rule that epitomises the failure of the ‘maximum control’ strategy. The theory was that the government would ease and tighten restrictions in response to the spread of the virus, but in practice it has been unable to muster the energy to change direction as the tide has turned. The absence of a coherent strategy has weakened support for the government and galvanised resistance from both the populist opposition and cranks’ cartels such as Viruswaanzin (which has, appropriately, changed its name to something less realistic). The intelligent lockdown has died, and with it the government’s reputation for crisis management. This week Rutte said ‘the sense of urgency has to come back’. His cabinet table would be a good place to start.