Far easing with more than 60,000 infections per day, it was unthinkable until a few months ago. The government is now ready to do it.
The expectation in political The Hague was Monday that all sectors, including the currently closed catering and culture sector, will be allowed to open again until 10 p.m. from Wednesday. And that entire classes no longer have to be at home if there are three infections in a class.
The decision follows increasing optimism about the less sickly Omikron variant. Hans Kluge, the director of the European branch of the World Health Organization, said this weekend that the beginning of the “pandemic endgame” is already visible in Europe.
According to an advice from the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) made public on Monday, children up to the age of twelve only need to be quarantined if they have complaints. If this advice is followed, which usually happens, all children will no longer have to be quarantined in case of infections in a class, a sports team or childcare. In case of (mild) complaints, the advice remains to stay at home and to do a corona test.
It is the first time since the start of the corona crisis that an OMT advice is sent to the House of Representatives before a press conference. Several parties in the House of Representatives had urged this. The newly appointed Minister Ernst Kuipers (Public Health, D66) is now honoring this request. The cabinet’s move, announced at a press conference this Tuesday, goes beyond the 8 p.m. closing time advised by the OMT this weekend. A source close to the cabinet says that this “big leap” is not without risk. On Monday evening, strict enforcement was discussed with the mayors.
Vote within OMT turned around
Within the OMT, the most important advisor to the cabinet when it comes to the measures, the mood about Omikron has changed in recent weeks, says professor of molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases and OMT member Marc Bonten (UMC Utrecht). Where the fear was still in December that the ICs could again be heavily loaded, the RIVM models now look much better thanks to data from abroad. “The number of hospital admissions is much lower than with previous variants, the admitted patients are less ill and the length of stay is shorter. Until now, the IC was the weak link where things could go wrong. That is no longer the case.”
With the high number of infections, the pressure may shift to other parts of healthcare, Bonten acknowledges. According to him, an increase in admissions to the clinic is easier to cope with than to the ICUs, where advanced equipment and specialized staff are needed. The OMT is less able to estimate the situation outside the hospitals, says Bonten. “We have figures about hospital beds, not about visits to the doctor.”
According to epidemiologist Alma Tostmann (Radboudumc) retaining measures such as closures for sectors is no longer obvious in this phase of the pandemic. She points out that even the lockdown in the Netherlands has not been able to prevent the number of Omikron cases from rising rapidly in recent weeks. “I think the rampage has already started and is unstoppable, at the most you can slow it down. If you let go of everything now, you take the risk that it will increase even faster.”
Tostmann misses in the discussion about ‘raging out’ that infections still have negative consequences for many people. “Omikron is called ‘mild’, but with that we do a disservice to people who still get sick. People who are very vulnerable can no longer take a step at all, where is the empathy for that group?”
Checking every step if it is possible
Last September, the then outgoing cabinet also decided to let go of almost all corona measures, and afterwards there was criticism that the relaxation had been relaxed too quickly. That risk is now less great, thinks OMT member Bonten. “In September we said: do it in steps, that didn’t happen then. Now it’s going in steps and we’re checking every week if it’s possible.”
There are still uncertainties about the boosters. In the RIVM models, calculations are based on a ‘booster degree’ of 90 percent for all adults; that’s now 55 percent. Professor of infection prevention and OMT member Andreas Voss (Radboudumc) says: “What will happen if the virus continues to circulate among boosted elderly people? Most of those infected are now young.” It is also important how long the booster continues to work, according to some studies, the protection decreases again after ten weeks. That could be a reason to start easing now, says Voss. “You have to take the pain of easing once, then you can do it better if the booster is still optimally effective.”
Cultural sector relieved page 2
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 25, 2022