The Dutch cabinet has done a u-turn and decided to first start vaccinating 30,000 acute care hospital staff against coronavirus and, possibly, to bring forward the vaccination programme start date.

Hospital chiefs and other experts had been urging the government to start the programme with hospital staff in an effort to reduce absenteeism rates. Health minister Hugo de Jonge had said repeatedly that the Netherlands would not start rolling out its vaccination programme until January 8, with nursing home staff and residents the first in line for the jab.

However, on Saturday he announced the rethink, saying that the aim is to have clarity by Monday about when the new approach could start.

‘The worrying situation in acute care has been partly prompted by illness among health care workers, which is often corona-related,’ the health ministry statement said.

‘That is why acute care workers are becoming part of the group to qualify first for vaccination.’ Earlier this week, hospital patient coordination head Ernst Kuipers and acute care chief Diederik Gommers said hospital workers should be vaccinated first because this is essential to keep hospitals functioning.

On Wednesday it emerged that dozens of Dutch hospitals may no longer be able to offer critical but non-urgent care. Kuipers expects hospitals to be treating some 3,000 coronavirus patients by early January, well above the total at the height of the first wave, he told Nieuwsuur on Wednesday evening.

Currently, around 9,500 new cases of coronavirus a day are being registered, although the figures may be distorted by the Christmas and New Year break. Gommers described the government’s change of heart as ‘great news’.

‘This is really important to use, in particular given the information about the new British variant,’ he is quoted as saying in the Volkskrant. ‘At the moment we are just coping… but if that variant takes hold in the Netherlands, more staff will become ill and patient numbers will increase as well.’

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