Government’s COVID-19 choices: Risky Gamble or Strategic Masterplan?

Naomi ‘t Hart

Research conducted by RIVM, the GGD’s and the GGD GHOR, three of the most important
health institutions in The Netherlands, shows that 45 per cent of the population is positive
about the government's approach to the corona crisis. In November of last year, this
number was 58 per cent, meaning a decline of thirteen per cent in the past two months.
Three months of lockdown and people are becoming increasingly critical of the
governments COVID-19 response. Businesses are already speaking of reopening regardless
of the lockdown measures and the Dutch branch organization for hospitality is suing the
government for damages. Business owners point to the GGD’s top-six list of places where
people are infected, 50% are people who do not know where they were infected, followed
by the home environment (25%), social gatherings (12%), workplace (8%), school and
childcare (6%) and care homes (3%), stating that the government lacks concrete numbers to
underpin why certain businesses are allowed to open and others are not.

Since Wednesday last week, the government has given the green light for stores to open up
ever so slightly with a click and collect service. Customers can call or order online, at least
four hours in advance, and then collect their item in-store. According to Dutch retail
organization INretail it is too little and possibly too late as many stores have seen their
revenue dry up almost completely.

According to Paul ‘t Hart, professor of public administration at the University of Utrecht, the
number of people positive about the government’s approach is striking. ‘Even with a decline
of thirteen per cent, it is astonishing to see how much support there still is after almost a
year of measures, including two long periods of lockdown. This shows that if a crisis is big
enough, you can implement strict measures for long periods without losing extreme
amounts of public support.’
That being said, the government seems to be gambling when it comes to choosing which
measures to implement. The closing of non-essential shops is just one example that stands
for a broader premise in society towards government measures coming across as rash and
arbitrary. ‘t Hart says that with the UK-variant of COVID-19 bringing so many unknows, the
government is acting as a preventative policymaker. ‘On the one hand, we don’t know what
will happen, and on the other hand, we don’t know how the public will react. The
government, to a certain degree, has to take a chance and gamble with the hand they are
dealt with.’
With elections just around the corner, the stakes could not be higher for the outgoing
government coalition. To maintain a base of support for COVID measures, ‘t Hart states the
need for the government to be consistent, frequent and transparent in their
communication. ‘If there is a criticism to be made, Rutte-III have sometimes announced
measures with high confidence when two weeks later they have had to come back on their
choices. If there would have been more transparency about how and why choices were
made, there would probably be less backlash. My advice: Be realistic, humble and cautious.’