Prime Minister Mark Rutte said during a debate in the Tweede Kamer on Thursday that he still fully supports the January 2021 decision to introduce a curfew in an attempt to defuse the coronavirus crisis. This assertion led to frustration, irritation and anger among a large part of the opposition MPs in the lower house of Parliament, including those from PvdA, GroenLinks, PVV and SGP. Rutte also said he finds the closure of schools still defensible, to the indignation of the opposition.
Rutte fully acknowledged that both measures were far-reaching and that the school closure in particular was “terrible.” However, it was necessary, the prime minister stressed several times. According to the opposition, the Cabinet should have spent more time looking at alternatives, such as the introduction of a mandate forcing people to work from home.
Rutte’s previous Cabinet has been accused of using the school closures as a way of essentially forcing parents to work from home. Rutte told MPs on Thursday that a duty to work from home was politically unfeasible. Moreover such an obligation would not work in this “basically anarchist country.”
The forced curfew was introduced because “we had no other measures,” Rutte said. “The schools were already closed and there was really nothing else we could do. We were standing together as a country with our backs against the wall.” The coronavirus infections were continuing to increase, the intensive care units were full and the rest of the healthcare system was barely continuing to function, the prime minister summed up.
He believes the country was heading for an unmanageable situation. “The effects were intense, but at the time there was no alternative,” he said of the Cabinet’s decision to force the population to stick to a curfew for the first time since World War II.
“I still support the introduction of the curfew,” Rutte said. The measure was “necessary and proportionate,” a perspective he still believes. The Tweede Kamer found Rutte’s assertion incomprehensible, because the effects of the curfew have never been investigated. An exasperated prime minister failed to convince the opposition parties.
According to Rutte, the decision to close the schools was postponed as long as possible. In the end, the Cabinet decided to do so, “because the situation was in danger of completely overflowing.” Rutte emphasized that this is “the last thing you want, but you cannot rule it out,” not even with pandemics that could take place in the future.
The opposition parties believe Rutte has refused to learn lessons from the effects of the drastic measures implemented by the Cabinet. They were very disappointed that he has also refused to state that he should have taken a different path when viewing the pandemic in hindsight.
A large majority of the Tweede Kamer wants the a separate investigation into the usefulness and necessity of school closures, the curfew and the obligation to wear face masks. So far, the Cabinet has refused to do so. The measures were so far-reaching that an investigation into their effect on fighting the pandemic is warranted, also to learn lessons for future pandemics, said coalition parties VVD, D66 and CDA, and opposition parties PVV, GroenLinks, PvdA, SP and SGP. DENK and Groep Van Haga also want three separate studies, as became clear during Thursday’s debate about the Dutch Safety Board’s investigation into the government’s approach.
If there is better insight into the effect of the various measures, this can “help create and maintain support. The success of policy depends on support,” said VVD MP Judith Tielen. The studies are also important for support if measures have to be taken in the event of a subsequent pandemic, the opposition agreed.
The PVV also wants recognition from the Cabinet that it made mistakes with the introduction of the curfew, the mask obligation and the closure of schools. The Dutch Safety Board also recommended that the individual measures be investigated.
The Tweede Kamer was critical of both the communication to all Dutch people about the measures which were planned on various timelines and charts, and inadequate substantiation about the measures. For example, the investigation by the Dutch Safety Board showed that the second school closure was mainly intended to keep parents from going to the office. “Children have been used as an ankle bracelet to keep parents at home,” said PvdA MP Julian Bushoff.
“The children paid the price,” said GroenLinks MP Lisa Westerveld. Children from vulnerable families in particular have fallen behind with education, and many young people developed mental health problems. Some young people still struggle with this.
Health Minister Ernst Kuipers pledged to expand the research assigned to both ZonMw and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Both have already been instructed by the ministry to investigate the effects of all coronavirus measures taken together. They must now also, as much as possible, map the effect of each individual measure, including the curfew.
Reporting by ANP