Dutch weigh the cost of ‘light touch’ lockdown

A relaxed approach to lockdown in the Netherlands helped preserve the economy, but rising Covid cases and growing unrest spells trouble

Illustration of the Dutch flag on a postcard
Despite rising cases, the Dutch government hopes to avoid a new lockdown to save the economy

This five-part series looks at how major European economies have coped with the Covid crisis, and how governments have scrambled to save jobs and businesses. Our last stop visits the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte has advocated an “intelligent” lockdown.

In the colourful centre of Dam Square, a stream of tourists and well-to-do locals normally buzzes in and out of Amsterdam’s most prestigious department store. But for three days last week De Bijenkorf – the beehive – became a highest-profile victim of strict new rules meaning businesses linked with a number of coronavirus infections can be shut down.  

The retailer had to close temporarily after 10 of its 1,400 employees tested positive for Covid. That came as a surprise to chief executive Giovanni Colauto as only a day earlier he had been talking to the government's GGD public health body about how staff should change face masks three times a day as well as limiting customer numbers, ensuring social distancing, and other safety measures such as plexiglass screens.

“Since the reopening of the stores, we have done everything we can to create the safest possible shopping and working environment,” he says. “I regret the decision to temporarily close the store. This has a major impact for the Bijenkorf and also for the city.”

Although the Netherlands shut a handful of hotels and cafés thought to be breaking rules to limit coronavirus, De Bijenkorf’s closure came as a surprise to others. Since March, the country’s approach has been characterised by a light touch, asking citizens to work from home, keep 1.5 metres from others and self-isolate if ill – with the larger aim of balancing the nation’s health with a once-thriving economy.

From mid-March, Prime Minister Mark Rutte appealed largely to common sense, starting what he called an “intelligent” lockdown. Schools, bars and restaurants were closed and there were limits on numbers meeting and €390 fines, but the Netherlands imposed only about 15,000 penalties – roughly one for every 50 issued in France.

Meanwhile, businesses were eligible for support covering 90pc of wages in exchange for not making redundancies, with payouts for the self-employed and other tax deferrals and measures costing the government €20bn (£18bn) and counting.

Primary schools resumed in May, social and arts venues, and even brothels reopened from July, and the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis now expects the economy to shrink by 5pc in 2020 – a mild hit compared with the 10pc predicted UK GDP drop.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands has registered 6,175 deaths from coronavirus, putting it 21st in the world (although including excess deaths, the real toll is likely to be more than 10,164 according to Statistics Netherlands).

But earlier this month, coronavirus infections increased by 52pc in a week, the Netherlands entered the UK list of quarantine destinations and Rutte returned from holiday to threaten more severe measures. In Rotterdam and Amsterdam infections are rising the fastest – especially among young people, businesses linked to large outbreaks are being shut and face masks were for a time obligatory where large numbers of people are found.

All this is intended to preserve a relatively positive economic picture, according to economist Mathijs Bouman. “We see a lot of indicators bouncing back, but on the other hand a small second wave has materialised a bit earlier than expected and [government] policy is trying not to have a new lockdown, to save the economy,” he says.

“We learned from the first wave that fear of the virus killed the economy more than the lockdown itself, but it wasn’t as deep as in other countries or as bad as expected.”

Public trust in politics and institutions rose during the shutdown, and support for Rutte’s VVD party spiked in June, but now public acceptance is wearing thin in some groups, especially the 20 to 40-year-olds representing almost half of new infections.

Red light district resident Ab Gietelink and a protest group called Viruswaarheid (“virus truth”) failed to overturn the Amsterdam face mask ruling in court this week. “The research suggests new infections seem to come from clusters in closed spaces, at home and in cafés so we think that you need to look at ventilation,” he says. “Face masks, 1.5 metre distance and strange hygiene rules are an outdated way of thinking and have a huge social and economic effect.”

Shop union INretail claims that masks “dramatically” discourage trade in shopping streets, and in parliament too, the four-party government has come in for sharp criticism. Last week, health minister Hugo de Jonge had to backpedal on making quarantine obligatory, while opposition parties GroenLinks and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom criticised the government for refusing nurses a pay rise.

“Unfortunately the Dutch government is making a mess of how to deal with the coronavirus,” Wilders says. “The minister of health care proposed compulsory quarantine but retracted it in one day, public health bureaux who have to track and trace people are still understaffed [and] schools are unprepared about the correct ventilation. Chaos.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Credit: BART MAAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Although Rutte has taken a sterner tone, warning of a “dangerous rise” in infections and a “collective responsibility” to prevent a second lockdown, it is likely that political division will only grow, with general elections coming next March against a backdrop of increasing street demonstrations and some hooliganism.

Meanwhile, as government subsidies peter out, unemployment and bankruptcies are set to rise and the Netherlands will also be affected by the global slowdown. “Even though the domestic economy has done better than comparable countries, being more or less the most globalised country in the world,” says Bouman, “the big hit will come from the international economy”.