Record Dutch COVID-19 cases prompt U-turn on face masks

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch government reversed course on Wednesday on its long-held position against recommending the use of face masks in public places, as new coronavirus cases hit record highs and a parliamentary majority appealed for decisive action.

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks stand, as Schiphol Airport reduces its flights due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Amsterdam, Netherlands April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

“What we wish to do is give the whole of the Netherlands some clear, urgent advice: from now on, wear a non-medical mouth-and-nose mask in public spaces,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said during a debate in parliament in which members of his own coalition had called for the change.

The move comes after the country’s second wave of COVID-19 infections climbed above 3,000 new cases per day this week.

Rutte and the Netherlands’ top medical expert had argued since the start of the pandemic against masks’ usefulness in preventing COVID-19 transmission, recently prompting a rebuke from leading U.S. expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Dutch television.

The World Health Organization has recommended the use of masks since June to slow the spread of COVID-19 when social distancing measures are impossible. The Netherlands and Sweden had been among the few countries to reject that advice.

The head of infectious diseases at the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health (RIVM), Jaap van Dissel, has argued there is no scientific proof of cloth masks’ effectiveness, and that they might do more harm than good by giving users a false sense of security.

This week, a Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur asked Fauci of the U.S. how he would respond to Van Dissel.

“I would ask him to look at the data that is rapidly accumulating about the importance and efficacy of face masks,” Fauci told the current affairs show. “The wearing of masks is as important as keeping physical distance and avoiding crowds.”

Making mask-wearing mandatory had been seen as impossible in the Netherlands due to constitutional guarantees on personal freedoms and a more recent 2019 law known as the “burka ban.”

Intended to prevent Muslim women from wearing face-covering clothing in public places, the law had been a goal of Rutte’s conservative VVD Party for more than a decade.

Amsterdam and other major Dutch cities tried introducing mandatory face masks in August on an “experimental” basis in August. A handful of shops began requiring them again on this week, in a move that caused confusion.

On Wednesday, Socialist Party lawmaker Lilian Marijnissen urged Rutte to simply adopt a national policy, saying: “We don’t have time for consensus-building.”

Reporting by Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch; Additional reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Catherine Evans