Netherlands and Czech Republic to enforce strict Christmas lockdowns

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Countries follow Germany’s lead to try to stem cases, as Italy weighs up similar measures

A Santa Claus on Sunday in Turin, Italy
A Santa Claus on Sunday in Turin, Italy. A government minister described crowds of shoppers flocking to city centres as ‘unjustifiable, irrational, irresponsible’. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/EPA

The Netherlands and the Czech Republic have said they will follow Germany into strict second lockdowns over the holiday period, with Italy weighing similar measures to avoid a fresh surge in coronavirus infections over Christmas and new year.

In a rare television address, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said non-essential shops and businesses, gyms, museums, cinemas and theatres would close for five weeks after the country’s seven-day new case average rose by more than 40% in the past week.

Bars and restaurants in the Netherlands have been closed since mid-October but the partial lockdown has not slowed the spread of the virus enough, Rutte said, as anti-lockdown protesters booed and whistled outside his office.

“The Netherlands will close for five weeks,” Rutte said. “We’re not dealing with a simple flu like the people behind me think … I’m afraid we’re going to have to swallow the bitter pill until things get better – which they will.”

People were advised to stay at home and could have only a maximum of two guests a day, Rutte said, except for 24-26 December when the limit would be raised to three, excluding children under 13. Schools will close from Wednesday, he added, and the measures would last until 19 January.

Restaurants, hotels and indoor sports venues in the Czech Republic, which reopened barely a fortnight ago, will also close again from Friday, said the prime minister, Andrej Babiš, as cases began to rise again after dipping earlier this month.

Public gatherings will be limited to six people indoors and out, instead of the current 10 and 50, with a nationwide curfew from 11pm until 5am and an early start to Christmas school holidays, although shops will remain open.

“This year’s Christmas will be totally different, but that is the result of the situation we are in,” the health minister, Jan Blatný, told a news conference.

Italian media reported the government was considering placing the whole country under “red-zone” lockdown from Christmas Eve until at least 2 January amid mounting fears of infections over the festive period.

Quick guide

Covid at Christmas: how do rules vary across Europe?

France reopened non-essential shops this month, allowing Christmas shopping to begin. But an uptick in new infections since then means that while travel is permitted from 15 December, a nationwide 8pm to 7am curfew will begin then that will be lifted for 24 December, but not Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Bars and restaurants will not reopen until January and private gatherings are limited to six adults.

Germany's "lockdown light", with bars and restaurants closed since November, has not proved effective and the country has shut down further, closing all bar essential shops (such as supermarkets and pharmacies) as well as hair and beauty salons until at least 10 January. A maximum of five people from two households may meet, except for 24, 25 and 26 December when up to four close family members from other households can be invited.

Austria’s strict lockdown has ended and the country is carrying out a mass programme of 10 million tests over the next fortnight with the aim of allowing more families to reunite over the festive period. Christmas markets have been cancelled.

Italy's prime minister has said tougher restrictions will be needed over the holiday period,but they have not yet been announced. Inter-regional travel is already banned from 20 December to 6 January except for work, health or emergency reasons, and Italians may not leave their home towns on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Midnight mass on 24 December has been brought forward so worshippers can get home before a nationwide 10pm-5am curfew. 

Spain has appealed for people to be responsible but will allow movement between regions “for family reasons” between 23 December and 6 January. Regional curfews, which range from 10pm to midnight, will be pushed back to 1.30am on 24 and 31 December, when the limit for gatherings will be raised from six to 10, a measure that will also apply on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

The Netherlands has imposed a tough Christmas lockdown, closing non-essential shops and businesses, gyms, museums, cinemas and theatres for five weeks until 19 January. Bars and restaurants have been closed since mid-October. Schools are switching to online learning and people advised to stay at home. Households may invite up to two guests a day except for 24-26 December, when the ceiling is raised to three, excluding children under 13. 

Belgium has said households may be in close contact with just one extra person over the Christmas period, although people living on their own will be allowed to meet two others. Fireworks are to be banned on New Year’s Eve to limit gatherings.

Poland will allow people to spend Christmas only with their immediate family, with no more than five guests to be invited to each household until at least 27 December and travel banned outside people’s home towns.

Britain is relaxing restrictions over the holiday with “Christmas bubbles” allowing up to three households to mix between 23 and 27 December. Scientists, government advisers and medical experts have called for an urgent rethink, suggesting the move could result in a disastrous third wave in the New Year.

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The measures could include extending night curfews, banning non-essential movement, shutting all except for non-essential shops and closing all bars and restaurants on weekends and holidays.

Italy reported another 484 Covid-19 fatalities on Sunday – surpassing Britain as the country with the highest death toll in Europe – as crowds of shoppers continued to flock to city centres after a partial easing of restrictions.

“The crowds are unjustifiable, irrational, irresponsible,” Francesco Boccia, the minister for regional affairs, told the daily newspaper La Repubblica, adding that “business and health are simply not reconcilable at the moment”.

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Earlier this month the government banned travel during the holiday period except for work, health or emergency reasons, barring Italians from leaving their home towns on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Midnight mass on 24 December was brought forward so worshippers could observe a 10pm curfew.

Italy’s expected move follows a similar step by Germany, which on Sunday said it would close all except essential shops such as supermarkets and pharmacies, as well as hair and beauty salons, from Wednesday until at least 10 January as it battles “exponential growth” in infections.

The economy minister, Peter Altmaier, urged citizens to forgo Christmas shopping altogether, telling people to “only buy what they really need, like groceries”, while Angela Merkel’s chief of staff said a “comprehensive easing” of the new measures would be “very, very unlikely” in January or February.

Merkel had hoped a “lockdown lite” imposed in November would bring infection levels down so Germans could celebrate Christmas and new year almost normally, but the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases reported more than 16,000 new cases on Monday, 4,000 more than seven days ago.

Hospitals across the country have warned they are reaching their limits and schools nationwide are to close or switch to home schooling from Wednesday. The number of people allowed to meet indoors remains at five, except for Christmas Day.

Senior figures appealed to people to stay at home and watch the traditional Christmas mass online. Michael Kretschmer, governor of the eastern state of Saxony, said this would be the first time in his life he would not attend mass on 24 December.

“I don’t need it for my belief and I think it is right if all of us hold off during this sensitive time,” Kretschmer said. “Joseph and Mary were also on their own on the holy night.”

Britain is expected to maintain its rules around Christmas despite scientists and government advisers urging people to rethink their plans and ignore the easing of Covid rules amid fears over rising cases and hospitalisations in parts of the UK.

“Christmas bubbles” allow three households to mix between 23 and 27 December, but experts have warned the government is sending the wrong message by saying families must simply “follow the rules”, suggesting it may result in a third wave.