Focus (2)

Soualiga Newsday Focus (2696)

Dutch royals express deepest sympathy at death of ‘lively’ prince Philip

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Dutch royal family have expressed their deep sadness at the news of the death of Britain’s prince Philip, two months ahead of his 100th birthday.

The prince, who married the then-princess Elizabeth in 1947, ‘passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle,’ Buckingham Palace said on Friday. ‘We remember HRH Prince Philip with great respect,’ king Willem-Alexander, queen Maxima and former queen Beatrix said in a joint statement.

‘Throughout his long life, he committed himself with dedication to the British people and to his many duties and responsibilities,’ the statement said. ‘His lively personality never ceased to leave an unforgettable impression.

Our deepest and most heartfelt sympathy goes out to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and all the members of the Royal Family.’

Queen Elizabeth and Philip made official visits to the Netherlands several times and Philip was awarded the order of the Golden Ark by prince Bernhard for his work in nature conservation.



Confusion and questions after Dutch stop using AstraZeneca vaccine on under 60s

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The government’s decision to stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine on people under the age of 60 because of the very minor risk of rare blood clots has led to confusion and questions and will also cause delays in the vaccine roll out, experts say.

The decision goes against the advice of the European Medicines Agency, which said that while there may be a link between a rare form of thrombosis and the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, the advantages of the vaccine outweigh the disadvantages.

The Dutch decision, based on the recommendations of the national health council, has angered some health experts. ‘If you don’t have an alternative, carrying on vaccinating delivers far more than excluding a group,’ Professor Saskia Middelkoop of Radbout MC teaching hospital told the Volkskrant.

‘The [decision to] stop is such a shame, as we are now saving lives,’ Professor Carin Uly-de Groot of Erasmus University told the paper. The risk of dying from coronavirus is 20 times higher than developing this rare form of thrombosis for a woman under the age of 60, she said.

Some 34 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been given in Europe and so far, 169 cases of the rare blood clots have come to light, including 18 deaths. In the Netherlands, where 400,000 people, mainly healthcare workers, have been given the vaccine there have been eight reports and one death.

Despite the decision to stop vaccinating the under 60s with AstraZeneca, health minister Hugo de Jonge said the Netherlands remains on target to ensure every adult who wants to be vaccinated has had at least one shot by early July.

The Netherlands is due to be delivered 11.1 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen before that date, and there are 14.1 million people in the Netherlands on the list to be vaccinated.

Of them, approximately 1.8 million have already been given the jab. But nevertheless, the decision is ‘is a major blow and will lead to delays in the short term,’ vaccine expert and professor Gideon Kersten told broadcaster NOS.


The decision to suspend using the vaccine on the under 60s has also led to anger among some who already had an appointment because they have health issues. ‘I am an adult and perfectly capable of calculating the risk myself,’ one man in his 40s told DutchNews.

The seniors lobby group KBO-PCOB has also urged the government to improve its communications, saying it has been flooded with phone calls and emails from concerned elderly people.

Director Marcel Sturkenboom says he trusts the minister ‘has really good reasons’ and can substantiate why the vaccination of the 60-plus group will continue. ‘But this group is also entitled to good (scientifically substantiated) explanations and more extensive communication than is currently the case,’ he said.

At the moment only people in the 60 to 64 age group are being given the AstraZeneca vaccine in the Netherlands, as well as people with Down’s syndrome, or have serious health risks.



The Netherlands halts use of AstraZeneca jab for the under-60s

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Netherlands will no longer vaccinate people under the age of 60 with the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine because of the health risks, caretaker health minister Hugo de Jonge said on Thursday evening.

The minister’s decision is in line with recommendations by the national health council Gezondheidsraad, which rushed out its advice following publication of the European Medicine’s Agency’s position on Wednesday.

De Jonge said the decision had been taken following reports of eight cases of thrombosis in younger women who had been given the AstraZeneca vaccine. One woman died.

Nevertheless, the EMA said on Wednesday that although there may be a link between a rare form of thrombosis and the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, the advantages of the vaccine outweigh the disadvantages.

Despite this, the health council recommended not using the vaccine on people under the age of 60 because they have a higher risk of side effects. Germany, Italy and Spain have taken a similar decision, the health ministry said.

The impact of the decision on the Dutch vaccination programme is still being worked out, but the Netherlands will stick to the vaccination order already agreed, De Jonge said.

‘I still aim to ensure that by mid-May everyone over the age of 60 and people with risky health conditions have had their first vaccination, and that everyone who wants to be vaccinated will have had a jab at least once at the beginning of July,’ De Jonge said.

The EMA said on Wednesday that unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should now be listed as very rare side effects of Vaxzevria, as the AstraZeneca vaccine is now known, the EMA said.

The EMA said it had come to this conclusion after looking at ‘all currently available evidence, including the advice from an ad hoc expert group.’ In total, the EMA experts looked at 86 cases across Europe, of which 18 were fatal.

Some 34 million people in Europe have so far been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca product.



Trust needs to be restored, says Tjeenk Willink as coalition talks restart

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Exploratory talks to form the next Dutch government are restarting on Thursday after a two-week delay caused by a row over an accidentally leaked memo.

Veteran Labour (PvdA) politician Herman Tjeenk Willink will canvas the views of all 17 party leaders elected to parliament on March 17, starting with Sylvana Simons, the sole MP for left-wing group Bij1.

Caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte and leader of the right-wing liberal VVD will be the last person in the door on Friday. Tjeenk Willink told a press conference on Wednesday that he sees his task as identifying the barriers to trust between parties and how they can be removed so that a new coalition can be formed.

He stressed he was not interested in discussing the fate of individual politicians. He said the next government should not be bound by a tightly drafted coalition agreement, which diminishes parliament’s ability to scrutinise and influence its policies.

‘It disturbs the balance of power and makes the opposition redundant,’ he told a press conference on Wednesday.

Clean slate

The 79-year-old was appointed on Tuesday following the resignation of two sets of parliamentary scouts who were supposed to represent the interests of the VVD and D66, the parties expected to form the backbone of the new coalition.

The talks unravelled in the first week when D66 negotiator Kajsa Ollongren accidentally exposed her briefing notes to cameras as she dashed out of the parliament building after being notified of a positive coronavirus test.

The notes included a line suggesting Christian Democrat (CDA) MP Pieter Omtzigt should be given a ‘role elsewhere’, which was eventually traced to Rutte.

The prime minister then narrowly survived a vote of no confidence as MPs said his inability to remember discussing Omtzigt had undermined his credibility.

Support for Rutte

This week, however, Rutte seems back on course to lead a fourth government after his VVD party lined up behind him. As the largest group in parliament with 34 seats, the VVD is seen as indispensable in a coalition which will need at least four parties for a majority.

D66 leader Sigrid Kaag indicated that she was prepared to give the prime minister a chance, a week after saying she would have resigned in his position. She said the talks would start again from scratch with ‘no expectations’, adding: ‘It is up to Mr Rutte to outline how he is going to repair the breach of trust.’

The next coalition will also have to make tough policy choices as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, with the environmental planning agency (PBL) calling for wide-ranging reforms to correct years of delay and neglect.

Planning pressure

As well as the threat of climate change, the Netherlands is suffering from a housing shortage and the urgent need to restructure the agriculture sector so farmers can have clarity about their future.

A million houses need to be built by 2030 to relieve pressure on the western cities and growth spots such as Zwolle and Nijmegen. In other areas where the population is declining land use needs to be diversified as farming is scaled back to make space for renewable energy and recreation.

‘We need to build quickly, but above all carefully,’ David Hamers of the PBL told the Volkskrant. ‘It’s not just about building houses. Living and working need to be combined.

‘The debate right now is mainly around the question of whether to build new homes in the city or turn fields into suburbs. That’s a false distinction. The need is so great and the demand is so diverse that we need to do both.’



Public health body calls for action on unhealthy eating, and related social problems

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Greater efforts should be made to end the continuing health divide in the Netherlands by promoting healthy eating and tackling the societal problems which support it, public health advisory body RVS said in a report out on Wednesday.

Government policy has been too free and easy when it comes to closing the health gap, which the RVS said has been accentuated by the coronavirus crisis. People struggling with problems such as unemployment, low income, debt and an unhealthy living environment are likely to enjoy 15 fewer years in good health and die up to seven years earlier than their more privileged counterparts, the RVS said.

Ending this disadvantage would require a centralised approach, more money and a consistent 15-year programme, starting in the areas with the most pressing problems, the RVS said.

This effort, the agency said, should also be accompanied by a healthy eating campaign. A ban on advertising unhealthy food, lower VAT on vegetables and fruit would be part of the package proposed by the RVS, and, it said, local councils should be allowed to refuse a licence to fast food restaurants in order to promote a healthier living environment.

The RVS also wants the next government to introduce a tax on sugar. Last year health minister Paul Blokhuis said such a tax would not be on the cards in the near future because the effect of the measure has not been proven and he preferred to make agreements with industry about lowering sugar content.

The Netherlands has had a national health plan in place to combat obesity, alcohol and tobacco use since 2018 but has so far failed to engage supermarkets. A critical UNICEF report out in September last year concluded that most of the food aimed at children was too high in sugar, salt, and fats.



D66 MP Vera Bergkamp is the new parliamentary chairwoman

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – D66 MP Vera Bergkamp has won the vote to become the new chairwoman of the lower house of the Dutch parliament, beating sitting chairwoman Khadija Arib (PvdA) and deputy chairman Martin Bosma from the anti-Islam PVV.

Bergkamp took 74 out of 139 votes in the first round, with Arib on 38 and Bosma on 27. In her acceptance speech, Bergkamp stressed that she would chair parliament on behalf of all parties.

‘We face an enormous task,’ she said, before going on to refer to the tax benefit scandal, the planned move of the lower house to a new location while the current building is renovated and the fact there are now 17 parties in parliament.



Coronavirus cases decline by 7%, intensive care numbers still rising

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The number of positive coronavirus tests declined for the first time in eight weeks during the first week of April, but the pressure on intensive care beds shows no signs of easing.

In total 48,186 people tested positive in the seven days to April 6, compared to 51,866 in the last week of March. The drop of 7.1% contrasts with a 13% rise the previous week.

Hospital admissions declined by 3% to 1,588, but 376 patients were transferred to intensive care, an increase of 18.6%. The total number of patients in intensive care is currently at its highest level since last April.

The fall in cases could be partly due to the Easter holiday period, the public health agency RIVM cautioned in its latest weekly update. The number of tests taken was 10% lower than the previous week, while the positive test rate increased from 8.5% to 8.9%.

But most indicators suggest that the growth rate has been slowing since mid-March and infections may have started declining in real terms. The latest calculation of the reproductive number R puts it at 1.01 on March 22, down from 1.06 a week earlier.

Aura Timen, head of the national infectious disease control centre, told NOS: ‘On the basis of the most recent ICU figures we expect to reach the peak of the third wave in mid-April.

We will see in the next few weeks if that is the case.’ Children and elderly. The downward trend was steepest among children aged between 5 and 14, for whom recorded cases were down by around 15%, and in the oldest age groups, with positive tests down by 23% in the 90 to 94 bracket and 32% for over-95s.

Another 142 deaths were recorded over the seven-day period, compared to 171 in the previous week. These include deaths from previous weeks that were not officially notified until now.

Among the 25 regional health boards the highest level of infection was in Zuid-Holland-Zuid, where 407.7 out of every 100,000 people tested positive in the last week, compared to 170.3 in Groningen, which had the fewest recorded cases per head. Five areas were below the level of 200 cases per 100,000.

The daily figures for Tuesday showed 5,592 more positive tests were notified in the last 24 hours. Unusually, cases increased from Monday to Tuesday, possibly because of the long weekend, but the number was still 4% lower than a week ago.

There are currently 2,495 patients being treated in hospital for Covid-19 – a rise of 121 since Monday – of whom 750 are in intensive care.



Elder statesman Herman Tjeenk Willink set to lead coalition talks

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Labour party stalwart and seasoned negotiator Herman Tjeenk Willink has been nominated to restart negotiations on forming a new coalition government in the Netherlands.

Tjeenk Willink, 79, has been involved in the formation of four separate administrations, including the outgoing one, which he helped put together in 2017. MPs had called for the appointment of a single negotiator, or ‘informateur’ following the chaos of the past weeks.

They also called for an independent person, who is both widely respected and from outside the parliamentary tradition. MPs still have to vote on the appointment, and the far-right parties FvD and PVV have said they will vote against.

A former PvdA senator and deputy chairman of the Council of State, Tjeenk Willink’s role will be to sound out the parties on possible coalitions and alliances and present his recommendations to parliament.



VVD continues to back Mark Rutte but coalition options are limited

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – A number of prominent VVD members have gone public with their support for beleaguered caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, who is facing increasing isolation in The Hague after ‘forgetting’ he had suggested moving a critical MP to a ‘new role’.

Former ministers in Rutte-led governments, including Henk Kamp, Annemarie Jorritsma and Fred Teeven have all given their public backing to the prime minister, and there is no-one within the party who is publicly doubting his leadership, the NRC reported.

After all, they point out the VVD won the election with 34 seats and ‘you do not dump a leader who made his party the biggest again,’ the NRC said. ‘I have the feeling that these games in The Hague are damaging the Netherlands’ stability,’ said Groningen councilor David Jan Meijer.

‘The CDA and D66 have strengthened their negotiating positions. Congratulations. But now the country needs to be run again, and only Rutte can do that.’     volume is 80% Rutte himself has spoken of his determination to carry on.

‘It would appear that Rutte has recovered quickly from Thursday’s marathon debate,’ the NRC said. However, the decision by Gert-Jan Segers, leader of the minor coalition party ChristenUnie, to say that he would not join another VVD coalition led by Rutte has complicated the process of putting together a new coalition.

Party leaders are due to discuss the way forward with parliamentary chairwoman Khadija Arib on Tuesday, when they are also likely to select an ‘informateur’ to sound out the parties and suggest a tentative coalition.


Much depends on the position of D66, which is now the second biggest party in parliament. D66 leader Sigrid Kaag has indicated she has had enough of Rutte but has not said definitively that she will not work with him.

However, a coalition without the VVD and led by Kaag would require at least seven parties to form a majority and would appear to be a non-starter. The idea of a minority cabinet has also been mooted.

‘It may be impossible to put together a majority in our present situation,’ Leiden University professor Wim Voermans told the Volkskrant. ‘Then a minority cabinet is technically a possibility, maybe even necessary.

But the chances that such a coalition will last for four years are very slim.’ Former VVD MP Ton Elias told a television talk show that it is still unclear if the other big parties really no longer wish to work with Rutte.

‘They are taking their positions and trying to get as much as possible out of them,’ he said. ‘In the end it will be a VVD, D66 and CDA cabinet, with another party.’

Newcomer and FvD spin-off JA21 has been suggested as a possible number four, given their weight in the upper house of parliament.

Opinion poll

Meanwhile an opinion poll by Maurice de Hond suggests the row over Peter Omtzigt has cost the VVD support, suggesting the party would win 28 rather than 34 seats if there was an election tomorrow.

No single party, however, appears likely to benefit. Those votes, the poll of 4,000 voters shows, would be spread evenly between D66, pro-European Volt, the far right FvD and JA21, the pro-animal PvdD and farmers party BBB.



ChristenUnie rules out a new coalition with Rutte as prime minister

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Minor coalition party ChristenUnie has said it will not take part in a new cabinet with the right-wing Liberal VVD if Mark Rutte remains its leader, in a further blow to the caretaker prime minister.

ChristenUnie leader Gert-Jan Segers said in an interview with the Nederlands Dagblad that a new Rutte-led cabinet would not be able to ensure a change in the political culture in ‘any credible way’.

‘Too much has happened’ under Rutte to take part in a new cabinet led by him, Segers said. ChristenUnie, he said, could not be part of a political culture in which elections are treated as ‘irritating interruptions’. The decision, he said, is about Rutte as the embodiment of the political culture of the past 10 years.

‘It would not be credible if the man responsible for that culture leads the cabinet which is supposed to change it.’ Segers said he had told Rutte personally about his decision.

The six ChristenUnie MPs in the new look parliament voted against the motion of no confidence in Rutte on Thursday night, allowing him to survive the vote with just the support of the current coalition.

Rutte came under very heavy fire in from all parties in parliament when it emerged he had discussed the role of government critic and CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt in early talks on putting together a new government, after first denying he had done so.

ChristenUnie did support a motion of censure against Rutte which was drawn up by the other two coalition parties – D66 and the CDA.


The VVD is by far the biggest party in parliament after the March vote. However, commentators say Rutte’s position has been extremely weakened by the controversy and that this will seriously hamper efforts to put together a new coalition.

The NRC says in an editorial on Saturday it is right that Rutte was not thrown out of office immediately, given the current crisis. However, the no confidence vote was ‘a crystal-clear signal that the entire lower house, except for Rutte’s party, thinks that he has gone too far this time,’ the paper said.

It is to be hoped that Rutte will use this Easter weekend for self-reflection, the paper said. ‘A prime minister who, in his own words, ‘doesn’t lie’ and is still not believed, may be in office, but without actual power.

The VVD must assess whether Rutte’s interest is still the party’s interest. ‘In any case, the country does not benefit from a weak prime minister,’ the paper said. ‘Then it would be wise to follow the signal that parliament gave.’


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