Suede shoe blues: the Dutch Covid strategy is unravelling again

Something is going horrifically wrong with the Netherlands’ pandemic response. In point of fact two things are going horrifically wrong. First, infection numbers are again rising exponentially, doubling every two weeks by most measures. Secondly, the alarm bells were ringing for at least two weeks before government ministers woke up to the emergency.

Two weeks ago accountancy firm KPMG delivered a coruscating assessment of the Dutch government’s handling of the crisis. One of the fundamental mistakes it identified was the decision to base policy decisions on hospital admission rates rather than infections. A more proactive, less hesitant approach would very probably have saved lives, on the evidence of comparable countries such as Denmark and Germany. Rising positive tests have been proven to be a reliable predictor of rising hospital admissions, usually with an interval of around two weeks. It was confirmed by the last man-made catastrophe, the ‘dansen met Janssen’ tidal wave at the beginning of July, when nightclubs were reopened far too soon: infections began sprouting on July 2, patient numbers took off on July 15 and intensive care figures rose sharply from July 20.

Yet on September 14, a month before KPMG’s report was published, health minister Hugo de Jonge proclaimed his intention to make the same mistake again. ‘We will no longer steer by infection numbers as before,’ he said as he announced the end of the 1.5 metre society. ‘We will look much more at hospital admissions.’ In practice, the government has rarely let itself be distracted by something so crude as infection numbers. When he announced the first lockdown in March 2020, Mark Rutte said the primary aim was ‘to prevent the hospitals being overburdened’, and at every successive stage, while Rutte and De Jonge sat gawping at the hospital monitors, the virus has sneaked in under the desk and tied their shoelaces together.

Magical thinking has blighted and blunted the cabinet’s response, combined with a classically Dutch belief that something as volatile as a virus can be micromanaged. Take the second wave, which began in early September as schools and universities resumed. The government waited, tinkered with a few flimsy measures, such as closing bars at midnight, that seemed laughable then and aggravating now, and eventually imposed a ‘partial lockdown’ on October 13. Rutte had observed at a press conference on September 18 that cases were doubling every week, but De Jonge added that ‘if you look at the hospitals, we’re not there yet,’ as if there was still some hope of making water flow uphill. Infections didn’t start declining until the end of October, by which time they had increased twentyfold in nine weeks. Daily hospital admissions, which were below 20 in the first week of September 2020, passed the 150 mark on October 5 and didn’t drop below that level again until May 19. The cost of four weeks’ shoe-gazing was a lockdown that lasted seven months.

Once again, De Jonge’s failure to learn from past mistakes has given the virus a two-week head start. Infections have trebled since September 25, which, coincidentally or not, was the historic day when social distancing ended. Patient numbers are back to a level not seen since early June. Compounding the problem is that the Netherlands has never fully recovered from the dansen met Janssen fiasco. Though infections were falling in mid-September, they were still three times higher than in June, and the positive test rate – often the first indicator of an impending storm – has never been back below 7%, nearly twice the World Health Organization’s benchmark. Now it’s running at 15%, infections are set to hit 10,000 around Halloween, hospitals are running out of space and the cabinet’s response is to schedule a press conference for eight days’ time. Given the current vaccination rate there should be no need – and no excuse – for another lockdown, but if there’s one thing this government has consistently excelled at throughout the pandemic, it’s been throwing away a winning position.

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