- To prioritise public buy-in and avoid the need for an enforcement approach, the government instituted what they called 'intelligent lockdown', which has had to be supplemented with enforcement measures
- Some protests have been dispersed by police when they felt crowds were becoming too dense; some arrests have been made at larger protests in The Hague
- There is some indication that a focus on removing opportunities for people to break lockdown, rather than on enforcement, has been effective in changing behaviour in the Netherlands
- People report fairly high compliance with the regulations, but since restrictions began to loosen there have been reports of declining compliance
- People have expressed concern that the consequences of fines may substantially outweigh the risk of the offense, with offenders being enlisted in the 'criminal registration' which may have very negative consequences for future job opportunities
- There has been some concern about the legal rights of vulnerable people during the crisis - for some time attorneys were not allowed to speak in-person to their clients residing in care homes and psychiatric institutions
The Netherlands had its first COVID-19 hospitalizations in early March 2020. According to the statistics, by 17 June 11,836 people had been hospitalized since the beginning of the outbreak, and 6,074 had died. On 16 March a range of measures aimed at 'maximum control,' but not 'maximum containment' of the virus: in other words, extensive social distancing measures, but not full lockdown. Although people were still allowed to leave their houses and travel, measures included 1.5m distancing, no meetings, events or organised groups, school and childcare closures, restaurant and nightlife closures, and a ban on visits to nursing homes. The government also called on people to work from home if possible.
Enforcement is mostly based on emergency regulations put in place by the Netherlands' 25 Safety Regions. Ordinances may vary locally, but are largely based on a common model provided by central government. Police and municipal enforcement officers can act if necessary, and possible punishments include prison sentences. While the latter have not yet been issued, considerable fines have been imposed - 1.5 meter social distancing is enforced by a €390 ($435) fine, although police are instructed to inform and warn people, to give them an opportunity to comply, before imposing a sanction, and the number of fines being issued is lower than nearby European countries such as France, Spain and Italy. Since 11 May restrictions have started to be relaxed, as part of a multi-stage process expected to take until September, although the Government has also said they will raise restrictions again if infections resurge. Schools, sports clubs, bars and restaurants were closed for two months, but have been gradually reopening since 18 May. All major events remain cancelled until further notice.
Need for public buy-in and light touch enforcement
Early on in the outbreak, the government committed to taking an approach that would respect the Dutch culture against intrusion into private life and excessive regulation. To prioritise public buy-in and avoid the need for an enforcement approach, they instituted what they called 'intelligent lockdown'. The guiding principles of this 'intelligent lockdown' are allowing people to go out but trusting them to practice safe distancing, allowing people room to make their own decisions, and emphasising social responsibility to do the right thing, in order to change public behaviour.
This philosophy has been relatively effective at changing behaviour, but has nonetheless had to be supplemented with some enforcement measures:
- After many people ignored the measures during the first weekend of lockdown, fines up to €400 were introduced. Authorities have issued around 14000 fines
- Local Safety Regions were given the authority to close down public venues if necessary, and many popular tourist locations such as canals and roads to flower fields were then closed down
There have been instances of very small public protests about lockdown measures, and also larger gatherings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks. Most protests have stayed socially distant, with protesters wearing masks and maintaining distancing. Some protests have been dispersed by police when they felt crowds were becoming too dense. Some arrests have been made at larger protests in The Hague, but the vast majority have been peaceful. Maintaining public support for policing and coronavirus related measures will be an ongoing challenge, as the balance between health and safety and the right to protest and assembly must be maintained in changing times. So far, all local governments have accepted that even at the present time people have a right to demonstrate, and there is no evidence those exercising that right have a problem with maintaining social distancing.
Examples of good and/or innovative practice
There is some indication that a focus on removing opportunities for people to break lockdown, rather than on enforcement, has been effective in changing behaviour in the Netherlands. For example, with good weather during the first weekend of lockdown, large numbers of people crowded parks and beaches. Rather than crack down on individuals breaching social distancing rules, police closed parks and beaches to new visitors to thin out the crowds, and on subsequent days brought in crowd control fences and painted social distancing circles in the grass to limit contact between groups.
Despite relatively light touch enforcement, survey data show people report fairly high compliance with the regulations. Research being conducted at the University of Amsterdam has drawn some conclusions about what is influencing compliance:
- The two most important determinants of compliance were people's actual capacity to comply - whether they were able to, for example, work from home, and whether they had adequate knowledge of the measures
- Removing opportunities to break rules is also important, for example the number of people crowding beaches drastically reduced after roads to those beaches were closed. The researchers state: "When considered alongside the deterrence findings, this provides clear guidance to policymakers and practitioners; deterrence threats of fines, fees, and punishments may have little impact, whereas physically closing locations and making violating restrictions more difficult appears far more impactful for enhancing compliance."
- Social norms are also important to compliance - the more people saw others complying, the more likely they were to comply themselves. This is consistent with previous research on public behaviour change
However, whether these findings can be sustained over an extended period of time, or in the absence of any enforcement, remains to be seen. Since restrictions began to loosen on 11 May there have been reports of declining compliance.
Human Rights and Equalities considerations
Some public criticism has also been made about the potential unintended consequences of the enforcement approach, particularly the use of fines. People have expressed concern that the consequences of these fines may substantially outweigh the risk of the offense, because people will be enlisted in the 'criminal registration' which may have very negative consequences for future job opportunities.
There has been some concern about the legal rights of vulnerable people during the crisis. For some time attorneys were not allowed to speak in-person to their clients residing in care homes and psychiatric institutions. Case law in relation to vulnerable persons is now gradually emerging. A recent case extended custody over a psychiatric patient with (suspected) COVID-19 on the basis that the patient would otherwise be a threat to herself and society. More similar cases are expected in the coming months.