Nations across Europe moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant, with the Netherlands leading the way by imposing a nationwide lockdown.
All non-essential stores, bars and restaurants in the Netherlands will be closed until January 14 starting Sunday, caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at a hastily arranged press conference Saturday night. Schools and universities will shut until Jan. 9, he said.
In what is surely to prove a major disappointment, the lockdown terms also rein in private holiday celebrations. Residents only will be permitted two visitors except for Christmas and New Year’s, when four will be allowed, according to Rutte.
“The Netherlands is going into lockdown again from tomorrow,” he said, adding that the move was “unavoidable because of the fifth wave caused by the omicron variant that is bearing down on us.”
It wasn’t just the Dutch seeking to slow the spread of omicron. Alarmed ministers in France, Cyprus and Austria tightened travel restrictions. Paris cancelled its New Year’s Eve fireworks. Denmark has closed theatres, concert halls, amusement parks and museums. Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events.
The World Health Organization reported Saturday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in 89 countries, and COVID-19 cases involving the variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission and not just infections acquired abroad.
In the Netherlands, shoppers fearing the worst swarmed to commercial areas of Dutch cities earlier Saturday, thinking it might be their last chance to buy Christmas gifts.
Rotterdam municipality tweeted that it was “too busy in the centre” of the port city and told people: “Don’t come to the city.” Amsterdam also warned that the city’s main shopping street was busy and urged people to stick to coronavirus rules.
“I can hear the whole of the Netherlands sighing,” Rutte said in his lockdown announcement. “All this, exactly one week before Christmas. Another Christmas that is completely different from what we want. Very bad news again for all those businesses and cultural institutions that rely on the holidays.”
The head of the Dutch public health institute, Jaap van Dissel, described the shutdown as a preventative move that would “buy time” for more people to get booster vaccines and for the nation’s health care system to prepare for a possible new surge in infections.