Soualiga Newsday Focus

Soualiga Newsday Focus (2161)

SHTA Worried About Consumer GEBE Billing on the Rise

SINT MAARTEN (PHILIPSBURG) - The Sint Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association (SHTA) is concerned that during the lockdown of the past months, GEBE tariffs seemingly have gone up for consumers, the SHTA said in a press statement on Wednesday.

“While common expectation was that the reduced fuel clause and the situation of the country would lead to a decrease in charges. The combined 2-months invoicing has pushed most consumers into higher Utility Tariffs, thereby offsetting any possible savings for them and causing in fact a higher bill.

“As more people have stayed home during the pandemic lockdown, many individual consumers will be faced with a higher usage GEBE bill than before as well, instead of the at least an 8-hour period where there would be minimal consumption.

“This while GEBE enjoyed benefits of the reduced cost of fuel and at the same time many people have lost their jobs. An increased GEBE bill creates a heavier burden for many households.

“SHTA would like GEBE to revisit its invoicing policy for the invoices recently released to consumers for both Energy and Water to ensure that consumers are not inadvertently penalized for GEBE’s inability to check meters during the lockdown and the consolidation of 2 months usage into one invoice.

“SHTA congratulates the new management of GEBE and hopes that this issue can be addressed as soon as possible,” the statement concludes.


Investigators look into role of sea foam in surfer deaths

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Dutch sea research institute NIOZ is investigating the possible role of a thick layer of sea foam in the death of five surfers off the coast of Scheveningen on Monday evening.

Several experts have suggested the surfers may have become disorientated in the foam, which according to some eyewitnesses was over two metres high as it approached the harbour wall.

Sea foam is formed when sea water has a high concentration of dissolved organic matter from algal blooms and is whipped up by the wind. ‘There was a lot of foam and this may be due to the large quantity of algae,’ researcher Katja Philippart told broadcaster NOS.

‘This might be due to the good weather of recent days, combined with the strong winds.’ However, Philippart told NOS she is not aware of any cases in which people have been suffocated by sea foam.

One body has not yet been recovered and the search resumed on Wednesday morning. Two other bodies were found earlier on Tuesday morning and two others died after being pulled from the sea on Monday evening.

Three of the men who died came from The Hague, the other two from Delft. The Hague mayor Johan Remkes told reporters at a press conference that a thorough investigation into what happened would now take place.

‘How can it be that people with so much experience and who knew this place so well came to die,’ Remkes said. In total, 10 people are thought to have been in the water at the time, a group of six, a group of three and one single surfer.


Friends and family of the dead have been flocking to the location where the five men died, to leave flowers and comfort one another. The deaths have caused shock throughout the Netherlands’ surfing scene.

‘These were very experienced surfers and swimmers, with a great love for the sea and their sport,’ the Holland Surfing Association said. ‘They were caught up in extraordinary circumstances and lost their lives in such a tragic way.’



Brussels warns the Netherlands about airline vouchers, reasserts passenger rights

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – EU nationals are entitled to cash refunds if flights and ferry crossings are cancelled because of coronavirus, and countries such as the Netherlands which do not support this are being written to, the European Commission confirmed on Wednesday.

At the end of April, Dutch infrastructure minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen said the Netherlands is turning a blind eye to the cash back requirement, even though the vouchers are only valid for a year and passengers could be left with nothing if the airline goes bust.

During a news conference to mark the publication of a package of guidelines for a return to safe travel and tourism this year, commission vice president Margrethe Vestager said that ‘European consumers have a right to a cash refund, if that is what they want.’

‘Letters are being sent as we speak to member states which are in breach of this fundamental right,’ Vestager said. Some 11 other EU countries are thought to be following the Dutch position.

Later it transpired the letters are ‘aimed at reminding member states about the rules’ rather than the start of any legal proceedings. The package of measures aimed at starting tourism up again within Europe include recommendations on how to make the vouchers more attractive.

‘Many companies have problems and this liquidity crunch would be less severe if customers accepted vouchers instead of cash refunds,’ Vestager said. To this end, the commission suggests vouchers be protected against the airline going bankrupt, be valid for a minimum of 12 months, and be refundable after at most one year, if not redeemed.

They should also give passengers sufficient flexibility, allow them to travel under the same conditions, and be transferable. Van Nieuwenhuizen said in April she had decided to turn a blind eye to airlines breaking the rules to protect their financial position.

Nevertheless, the minister said she would like the aviation sector to make the vouchers as attractive as possible, by being more flexible about the conditions and allowing them to be transferred to other passengers.

Alexandre de Juniac, head of the international airline body IATA, said in a reaction that the commission’s recommendations are ‘quite frankly, are not helpful to airlines are consumers.

Both need clarity.’ Every traveler must be treated fairly and given what they are owed, he said. But at the same time, there needs to be a harmonised approach to reimbursements and vouchers ‘through a temporary and clearly drafted adjustment of the current passenger rights framework’.



Up in smoke? Dutch ponder new rules to get tough on vaping

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Junior health minister Paul Blokhuis has told MPs he is considering extra legislation to limit the use of e-cigarettes following research which shows they are widely used by teenagers.

Electronic cigarettes are more dangerous to health than first thought and are seen by teenagers as a first step to smoking real cigarettes, according to a new fact sheet produced by the Trimbos addiction clinic on behalf of the health ministry.

Fifteen years after they first came on the market, some 3.1% of Dutch adults now use an e-cigarette on occasion, Trimbos said. Their use is largely seen as a way to stop smoking cigarettes, although almost three quarters of users still smoke in the traditional way.

However, according to figures from 2017, 27% of 12 to 16-year-olds have used an e-cigarette, as have 44% of vocational and hbo college students, and there is increasing evidence that they are becoming a steppingstone to tobacco.

In particular the flavours are attractive to youngsters, as is the low cost, the Trimbos agency said. In addition, the liquids contain chemicals which can be carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous.

But the impact on lung and heart disease and cancer rates will only become clear in the long term, Trimbos says. However, the organisation says, the health of the Dutch would be best served if the use of e-cigarettes is restricted to hardened smokers who cannot stop using other tried methods.

‘The new Trimbos insights raise questions about introducing additional legislation,’ Blokhuis said in his briefing to MPs. The minister will now study the research in more detail and, according to the Telegraaf, a ban on flavourings is one of the options being considered.



Eating green. Dutch are more inclined to go organic: research

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Dutch are buying organic food more often but total consumption is still only a little over 4% of the total, new figures from organic food lobby group Bionext show.

In 2019, 95.1% of all Dutch households bought at least one organic product and almost nine in ten did this in a supermarket. ‘Supermarkets are increasing the range of organic products and that means easier accessibility.

(..) People who buy more organic products at the supermarkets are more likely to visit specialised organic food shops as well,’ Bionext director Michaël Wilde said. Consumers are also motivated by the perceived benefit to the environment, animal welfare and health.

More awareness, through campaigns such as the ‘change over weeks’ at supermarkets during which consumers are encouraged to buy organic, also contributed to the increase.

Eggs, vegetables and fruit are the most popular products among consumers trying out organic products, particularly because of the lack of pesticides, Wilde said. Despite the rise in sales, price remains a barrier for many, researchers found.

Some 65% of households indicated they would buy more organic products if prices were lower. However, the gap between organic and non-organic products is narrowing. Consumer association Consumentenbond figures show that organic food is now 1.75 times as expensive as non-organic compared to twice as expensive five years ago.

Seasonal produce prices are on a par with, and sometimes cheaper than supermarket A brands. Organic food still only accounts for 4.3% of total consumption. ‘There’s still plenty of opportunity for growth and make the world a better place and keep it liveable for our children,’ Wilde told the AD.



Universities plan to carry on teaching online until February 2021

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Dutch universities have announced that they plan to teach courses wholly or partially online until February 2021, provoking shock and concern among some students.

The University of Amsterdam’s economics and business departments have informed students that all courses will be taught online until the end of the first semester in February because ‘no one can predict what the beginning of the new academic year will look like.’

Groningen University is reportedly planning to continue with online courses, as is Leiden University, which has discussed the possibility of making the move permanent. Although primary schools are starting to reopen in the Netherlands this week, the government has not yet announced its plan for higher education.

Some international students have told DutchNews that the suggestion that their education might continue online well into next year came as a ‘shock’. The Dutch student union LSVb has found that students have mixed views of the quality of tuition being offered online.

While 41% of students surveyed last month thought the quality was good, 31% thought it was not and 28% were neutral. Leo Sabovčik, a student at the University of Amsterdam, was surprised that the economics and business departments had decided to go fully online before the government had made an announcement.

But, he said: ‘I am quite happy with that decision. I am a non-Dutch student and online classes suit me very well, so I am happy to continue studying this way next semester.’

But Sneha Vaishali, who is currently studying at the University of Delhi and is due to start a Masters in physics and astronomy in September said that if her course were only taught online it would ‘significantly affect’ her decision to move to the Netherlands.

‘Paying a high international tuition fee and not being able to access the classroom teachings, or have exposure to the research environment and infrastructure, doesn’t seem to be worth it,’ she told DutchNews.

She added that a lack of social and academic contact, plus worries about a stable internet connection if she did not move immediately to the Netherlands, would compound the stress of studying. Nihal Ashok, a master’s student at TU Delft is due to graduate before next semester but said he would think seriously about value for money if the education continued online.

‘From [the] perspective of a first-year student, I feel the fee is completely unjustified,’ he told DutchNews. ‘They will be paying around 1600 euros per month and the quality of education is not the same as offline education.

There is no international environment, networking, workshops or labs, so there is definitely a compromise.’

‘Avoid delays’

A spokeswoman for the University of Amsterdam confirmed that its economics and business department was preparing to teach online from September. Dean Han van Dissel told Folia magazine that the decision was to reassure students ‘that they can carry on and avoid delays in their studies as much as possible.’

Caroline van Overbeeke, a spokeswoman for Leiden University, told DutchNews that it was preparing for both online and on campus education – ‘online if necessary and on campus if it’s possible.’

‘The precise form that this takes from September 1 depends of course on the government and [public health institute] RIVM’s rules,’ she explained. ‘We are preparing for both scenarios in the months ahead, and a mixture of both is also possible.’

She added that the university is offering support to international students, who also have the option of following the education from their home country if they are unable to travel to the Netherlands because of restrictions.

DutchNews has contacted the education ministry to ask when an announcement is expected about the physical reopening of higher education institutions.



Spread of coronavirus in nursing homes is slowing: RIVM

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The official Dutch coronavirus death toll rose by 54 to 5,510 on Tuesday as previously unregistered weekend deaths were added to the total.

Delays in reporting at the weekend mean that figures on Monday tend to be artificially low, causing a mini-spike in reported cases on Tuesdays. The average death toll over the last seven days is 53, from a peak of 154 in the first week of April.

A further 35 people were admitted to hospital, taking the total number of hospital admissions to 11,378, the public health institute RIVM said in its daily update.

In addition, 196 more people have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total confirmed infections to just under 43,000.

The RIVM also said on Tuesday that the spread of Covid-19 in nursing homes appears to be slowing and that few residents are dying of coronavirus. Testing of workers and home residents has been stepped up in recent days.



Dutch primary schools re-open their doors as lockdown starts to lift

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Dutch primary schools and daycare centres opened their doors again with balloons and welcome messages after an eight-week closure due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Most schools are admitting children every other day, but some have gone for half days, despite the government’s urging to stick to full days to make it easier on children and parents.

Schools were closed on March 16, despite the government’s earlier insistence that they should remain open, after parents and teachers protested. But officials say there is little risk of transmission via children and Jaap van Dissel, head of the public health institute RIVM, said last week that closing the schools had no influence on the total number of infections. International research would appear to back this up.

According to the Volkskrant, no cluster has yet been found in the Netherlands in which a child was responsible as the spreader. Nor has coronavirus been found in any of the 137 children who had flu symptoms and were tested as part of the nationwide monitoring system at 40 family doctors’ practices.

Nevertheless, the situation is now being closely monitored and teachers have been added to the list of coronavirus test priorities. ‘There are no guarantees,’ epidemiologist and paediatrician Patricia Bruijning told the Volkskrant.

‘It is like the start of a new school year,’ BartJan Commissaris, head teacher at the Polsstok primary school in Amsterdam told the Parool. ‘But of course, it is different, and we don’t know what sort of condition the children will be in mentally.’


Some parents too are frightened to let their children go back to school, and about 25% of the pupils who should have been at the Polsstok on Monday stayed home, Commissaris said.

Schools have drawn up one-way systems and colour-coding so parents can drop off their children while keeping 1.5 metres apart. ‘It is too complicated for me,’ one mother told DutchNews.

‘I will leave them at the top of the street and let them get on with it.’ Not all children were happy to be back either. ‘It was really boring because none of my friends were there so we could not play our usual games,’ one 10-year-old boy told DutchNews.

‘And anyway, I do more work at home.’



Covid-19 deaths and infections fall to lowest levels for eight weeks

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The number of newly reported Covid-19 deaths in the Netherlands fell to 16 on Monday, the second day in a row that the figure has increased by less than 20.

The number of new infections dropped to 161, the lowest level since March 14, while 36 more people were admitted to hospital, the public health agency RIVM reported.

Delays in reporting at the weekend mean that figures on Monday tend to be artificially low, causing a mini-spike in reported cases on Tuesdays. The average death toll over the last seven days is 53, from a peak of 154 in the first week of April.

Intensive care occupancy is just over 500, compared to a peak of 1400 a month ago, the National Co-Ordination Centre for Patient Dispersal (LPCS) reported on Sunday. The figure includes 15 Dutch patients who are being treated in Germany.

A further 1,054 hospital patients are in non-intensive care as a result of coronavirus. The decline to ‘normal’ numbers of intensive care patients means regular healthcare and operations can resume.

Health minister Hugo de Jonge said coronavirus would continue to have a bearing on society until a vaccine has been developed. The government has pledged to increase the number of permanent intensive care beds to 1700 in anticipation of future waves of infection.



The Netherlands readies to enter new phase in coronavirus campaign

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Netherlands enters a new phase in the campaign to control coronavirus on Monday, when primary schools reopen and people in ‘contact professions’ such as hairdressing are allowed to open their salons again.

In addition, the Dutch approach has switched from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay home if you have symptoms’ and from Monday, the over-18s can resume outdoor sports which do not involve physical contact, such as tennis and golf.

The impact of the changes will be carefully monitored to make sure they do not boost the Dutch infection rate, which is currently below 1. A rise above 1 would mean the virus is starting to spread more quickly again.

Subsequent easing, planned for June 1, will depend on this and other key conditions, health officials say.

Police state

Prime minister Mark Rutte on Friday stressed that individuals have the responsibility to make sure that they stick to the 1.5 metre rule. Asked if there will be strict enforcement when cafes and bars open, Rutte told reporters the Netherlands ‘is not a police state’.

‘We don’t want cafe owners to police their terraces,’ he said. ‘This is something we all have to do together.’ Rutte also said he recognised that the partial lifting of the Dutch lockdown had given rise to many questions.

‘We have to live with uncertainty and act sensibly,’ he said. ‘You can’t solve every problem in a couple of weeks.’ Meanwhile the Saturday sunshine led to overcrowding in some places and Dutch railway company NS urged people not to head for the seaside resort of Zandvoort.

In Amsterdam, the Vondelpark’s side entrances were shut so officials could better monitor the number of people. Elsewhere in the capital police cleared several areas where hundreds of people had gathered to enjoy the sun and to swim.

Utrecht and Leeuwarden mayors urged people to avoid their inner cities and in Leiden the main Haarlemmeerstraat was closed for a time because there were so many people walking along it, the AD reported.

Breda has developed an app alert to warn people if the city centre is too busy and in Rotterdam officials have put together a one-way system to guide shoppers round markets which have reopened after several weeks of closure.

Nature reserves

Natural heritage organisation Natuurmonumenten and forestry commission Staatsbosbeheer both said that parks and nature reserves were busy in places but that in general people were sticking to the 1.5 metre rule.

Hubert Bruls, chairman of the regional public safety agency, told broadcaster RTL that more people are already going out. ‘It appears to be getting a little busier every weekend,’ he said.

In most cases, when people are too close together ‘just talking to them or giving a warning’ is sufficient. ‘People and companies are primarily responsible and have to make sure the virus remains under control, so that a further relaxation of the rules becomes possible,’ he said.


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