Floodwaters still rising in western Europe with death toll over 120

By Martin Schlicht and David Sahl

SCHULD/ERFTSTADT, Germany (Reuters) – German officials feared more deaths on Friday after “catastrophic” floods swept through western regions, demolishing streets and houses, killing more than 100 people and leaving hundreds more missing and homeless.

Communications were cut in many areas and entire communities lay in ruins after swollen rivers tore through towns and villages in the western states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

After days of heavy rain, 103 people have died in Germany alone, the largest number killed in a natural disaster in the country in almost 60 years. They included 12 residents of a home for disabled people surprised by the floods during the night.

In Belgium, which has declared a day of mourning on Tuesday, officials said there were at least 20 dead and another 20 missing.

The flooding was a “catastrophe of historic dimensions,” said Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party’s candidate to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down after an election in September.

The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to a climate-change driven shift in the jet stream that has brought inland water that once stayed at sea, could shake up an election that has until now seen little discussion of climate.

“It is a sad certainty that such extreme events will determine our day-to-day life more and more frequently in the future,” Laschet said, adding that more measures were needed to fight global warming.

Proposals by the Greens, running a distant second in polls to Merkel’s conservatives, to introduce motorway speed limits to cut carbon emissions had previously drawn outrage.

Days after the European Commission unveiled plans to make Europe the “first climate-neutral continent, Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the scale and intensity of the flooding was a clear indication of climate change and demonstrated the urgent need to act.

CONCERN OVER DAMS

Achim Hueck, a fish farmer in the town of Schuld, said he had only just managed to escape. “It was rising really fast, it started from the path back here,” he said, pointing to the wreckage of his business.

“There was a path, there were ponds, lots of them up there. Fishing hut, toilet facilities, everything is gone,” he said.

As officials assessed the damage, the devastation appeared to have exceeded that caused by disastrous flooding in eastern Germany almost 20 years ago.

Some 114,000 households in Germany were without power on Friday and mobile phone networks had collapsed in some flooded regions, making it hard for authorities to keep track of the number of missing.

Roads in many affected areas were impassable after being washed away by the floods. Rescue crews tried to reach residents by boat or helicopter and had to communicate via walkie-talkie.

“The network has completely collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a spokeswoman for the regional government of Cologne said.

Authorities worried that further dams could overflow, spilling uncontrolled floods into communities below, and were trying to ease pressure by releasing more water.

Some 4,500 people were evacuated downstream from the Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, which had been at risk of a breach overnight, and a stretch of motorway was closed.

REINFORCING DIKES

Thousands of residents in the north of Limburg province in neighboring Netherlands were ordered to leave their homes early Friday as floodwaters peaked.

Emergency services were on high alert, and authorities were also reinforcing dikes along vulnerable stretches where floodwaters continue to rise.

Waters were receding in the southern city of Maastricht, where there was no flooding and in the town of Valkenburg, where damage was widespread, but no one was hurt.

France sent 40 military personnel and a helicopter to Liege in Belgium to help with the flood situation, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Twitter.

“The waters are rising more and more. It’s scary,” Thierry Bourgeois, 52, said in the Belgian town of Liege. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the town of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, the Meuse had risen beyond a retaining wall and was spilling past sandbags placed on top.

Several towns and villages were already submerged, including Pepinster near Liege, where around 10 houses partially or fully collapsed.

The death toll in Germany is the highest of any natural catastrophe since a deadly North Sea flood in 1962 that killed around 340 people.

Floods at the Elbe river in 2002, which at the time were billed by media “once-in-a-century floods”, killed 21 people in eastern Germany and more than 100 across the wider central European region.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told magazine Spiegel the federal government aimed to provide financial support for the affected regions as quickly as possible, adding a package of measures should go to the cabinet for approval on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Kirsti Knolle, Douglas Busvine, Anneli Palmen, Matthias Inverardi, Tom Sims, Thomas Escritt, Anthony Deutsch, Phil Blenkinsop; Writing by Maria Sheahan; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson)

Thousands of Dutch urged to leave their homes as rivers flood

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Thousands of people in the south of the Netherlands on Thursday were urged to leave their houses quickly to escape floods as rivers were on the brink of bursting their banks.

Several towns and villages along the Meuse river in the province of Limburg strongly advised people to seek refuge until at least Friday afternoon, as there was a large chance that their home would be flooded in the coming hours.

Water levels on the Meuse and the Rur reached record levels on Thursday, surpassing the levels that led to large floods in 1993 and 1995, local authorities said.

In Valkenburg, in the far south of Limburg, close to the Belgian and German border, floods had already engulfed the town center, forcing the evacuation of several nursing homes and destroying at least one bridge.

Drone footage showed brown water coursing over car parks and parkland. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visited Valkenburg on Thursday evening to show their support.

Scores of houses have been flooded in the province, where hundreds of soldiers have been sent to help fight the rising waters.

But with no casualties reported, the situation so far is much less severe than in neighboring Germany where dozens of people have died and others were missing on Thursday as rivers burst their banks and swept away homes.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Alison Williams)

Dutch reimpose COVID curbs as cases jump in young adults

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -The Dutch government reimposed COVID-19 curbs on nightclubs, music festivals and restaurants on Friday in an effort to halt a surge in COVID-19 infections among young adults.

The Netherlands lifted most lockdown measures on June 26, as cases were falling. Roughly two-thirds of the population has had at least one vaccination shot.

But, with bars, restaurants and nightclubs open again, new infections have risen at the fastest pace in months, with nearly7,000 cases reported over the 24-hours through to Friday morning. That compared with fewer than 1,000 a week earlier.

“Partly because of the Delta variant, infections are rising very fast,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

“Our goal is to rein in the virus, protect the vulnerable groups and make sure the healthcare system is not overrun.”

The measures included earlier closing of cafes and restaurants and a return to social distancing and fixed seating for diners or concert-goers. All dance venues and nightclubs will be closed because it will be impossible to ensure social distancing.

Festivals spread over several days would be cancelled and large public gatherings restricted to smaller groups, Rutte said.

The curbs would go into effect at 0500 GMT on Saturday and remain until Aug. 14, the government said.

So far, the new spike in infections has not led to an increase of COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

But health minister Hugo de Jonge said the current low level of hospital admissions could be threatened by an “unprecedented” increase in infections.

Around three-quarters of new cases in the Netherlands are occurring among young people and more than half are of the more infectious Delta variant, the health minister said this week.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Heavens)

Judge sees evidence of Buk missile being used in downing of MH17 airliner

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A judge in the Dutch murder trial over the downing of a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 said on Tuesday there was evidence the airplane was hit by an outside explosion caused by a Russian-made Buk missile.

Judges on Tuesday started reading out the evidence in the trial in the Netherlands against four fugitive suspects – three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen – accused of shooting down the plane on July 17 2014 and killing all 298 people on board.

Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in a field in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting against Ukrainian forces after being shot down with what international investigators say was a Russian surface-to-air missile.

“Experts have stated that the impact on the hull [of the plane] is compatible with a Buk missile system and a Buk warhead. No damage was found that would not be compatible with that scenario, or that would indicate another scenario,” judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

After years of collecting evidence, a team of international investigators concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher used to shoot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

The Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Russia denies any involvement.

The four suspects are standing trial in absentia. After a year of mostly procedural hearings, judges announced the start of the evidence phase on Monday.

This week the panel of judges will specifically look to determine what type of missile hit the airplane, where it was fired from and whether the four suspects can be held responsible.

“Today, it is about: was it a Buk missile or not?,” Hans de Borst, who lost his daughter in the crash, said before the hearing.

“I think the question is already answered but the court is now really answering it, so it’s important.”

(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Bart Biesemans, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Bitter week for families as evidence to be read in MH17 airliner trial

By Stephanie van den Berg

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Judges in the Netherlands will begin reading out the evidence this week in the murder trial against four fugitive suspects accused of shooting down a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 and killing 298 people in 2014.

Victims’ relatives said they were expecting the testimony to bring up painful memories, but that they were grateful for a chance to hear at last what had happened aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in a field in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting against Ukrainian forces, after being shot down with what international investigators say was a Russian surface-to-air missile.

Three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen, all suspected of having key roles in the separatist forces, are on trial for murder. Moscow has refused to extradite those in Russia.

One of the Russians is mounting a defense from abroad and denies blame, while the others have not appointed lawyers and are not participating.

“It is a very difficult day for us. It is now the first day of the prosecution, and that is difficult for us,” Evert van Zijtveld, who lost his two children Frederique and Robert-Jan and his wife’s parents, told journalists as he walked into court.

After a year of mostly procedural hearings, judges announced the start of the evidence phase on Monday. From Tuesday the judges will begin summarizing the evidence gathered by investigators in the case, and potentially calling witnesses.

Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said his panel would be looking specifically to determine what type of missile hit the airplane, where it was fired from and whether the four suspects can be held responsible.

“It is taking a long time but we want to know the truth. It is the only thing we can still do for the children,” said Rob Frederiksz, whose 23-year-old son Bryce died along with his girlfriend Daisy in the crash.

After years of collecting evidence, a team of international investigators concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher used to shoot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Russia denies any involvement.

On Monday the Kremlin said it was following the trial and took note of “alternative information” that could lead to other explanations of the crash from the Dutch prosecutor’s main theory of the Russian-made missile fired by pro-Russian separatists.

“But again, because we are not part of the investigation, we cannot directly influence what is happening,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow ; Editing by Peter Graff)

Dutch to allow bars, restaurants to reopen in ‘calculated risk’

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Netherlands will ease COVID-19 lockdown measures next week, allowing bars and restaurants to serve indoors and museums to reopen in what Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday called a “calculated risk.”

“We are moving from closed, unless, to open, unless,” he told reporters.

Infections have fallen by more than half in the past month as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations gathers pace, allowing a further easing of the lockdown, which has been in effect in various stages for almost eight months.

Previous steps in recent weeks allowed for secondary schools to reopen and for meals and drinks to be served on outdoor terraces until 8 p.m.

Bars and restaurants will now also be allowed to serve customers indoors and to stay open until 10 p.m., Rutte said.

At home, people will be allowed to receive four visitors at a time, up from the present two.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said the drop in infections was mainly due to vaccinations.

“Almost half the people over 18 have had their first jab,” De Jonge said.

The government also announced that if infections stay at the current level, more restrictions will be lifted on June 30.

From that date, sports matches will be allowed, restaurants will be able to serve up to 100 people and stay open till midnight. At home, people will be allowed to receive up to eight guests.

There was bad news for Dutch football fans – large indoor and outdoor screens showing the European Championships, which kick off on June 11, are expressly forbidden.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Chris Reese and Nick Macfie)

Bees in the Netherlands trained to detect COVID-19 infections

By Bart Biesemans

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch researchers have trained bees, which have an unusually keen sense of smell, to identify samples infected with COVID-19, a finding they said could cut waiting times for test results to just seconds.

To train the bees, scientists in the bio-veterinary research laboratory at Wageningen University gave them sugary water as a reward after showing them samples infected with COVID-19. They would get no reward after being shown a non-infected sample.

Having got used to the system, the bees were able to spontaneously extend their tongues to receive a reward when presented with an infected sample, said Wim van der Poel, a professor of virology who took part in the project.

“We collect normal honeybees from a beekeeper and we put the bees in harnesses,” he said. “Right after presenting a positive sample we also present them with sugar water. And what the bees do is they extend their proboscis to take the sugar water.”

The extending of the bees’ straw-like tongues to drink is confirmation of a positive coronavirus test result, according to the researchers.

It can take hours or days to get a COVID-19 test result, but the response from the bees is immediate. The method is also cheap, potentially making it useful for countries where tests are scarce, they said.

But Dirk de Graaf, a professor who studies bees, insects and animal immunology at Ghent University in Belgium, said he did not see the technique replacing more conventional forms of COVID-19 testing in the near future.

“It is a good idea, but I would prefer to carry out tests using the classic diagnostic tools rather than using honeybees for this. I am a huge bee lover, but I would use the bees for other purposes than detecting COVID-19,” he said.

The technique of “insect sniffing” was effectively tested by the U.S. Dept. of Defense to detect explosives and toxins in the 1990’s, De Graaf said.

Moths, bees and wasps were used “for safety purposes to detect explosives as well as for medical diagnosis,” he said.

But too little is known about the Wageningen testing to determine its true effectiveness, he said, although he was open to the idea of bee testing providing an indication of illness when PCR tests were unavailable.

(Reporting by Bart Biesemans, writing by Anthony Deutsch, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

Netherlands proposes first curfew since World War Two, flight bans

By Bart H. Meijer

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Dutch government on Wednesday proposed the first nationwide curfew since World War Two and a ban on flights from South Africa and Britain in its toughest moves yet to limit the spread of coronavirus in the Netherlands.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the curfew, which is largely intended to target new, more infectious variants of the disease, must be approved by parliament, which is set to debate measures against the coronavirus on Thursday.

The flight ban, which Rutte said also will apply to all South American countries, will begin on Saturday. The curfew was expected to take effect this weekend, he said.

“This is a very tough measure, but we are at a crossroads,” Rutte said in a televised news conference. “The British variant doesn’t leave us with an alternative.”

The curfew would allow only people with pressing needs to leave their homes between 8:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. local time, Rutte said.

Exceptions include medical emergencies, people who need to be outdoors to carry out essential jobs and walking of pets on a leash. Violators can be fined 95 euros ($115).

The government said it will also require all international travelers arriving by airplane or boat to provide proof of a second negative COVID-19 rapid test, taken just before departure. It had already required a negative test taken within 72 hours of travel.

KLM, the Dutch subsidiary of Air France KLM, said that in response to the requirement it will halt 270 weekly long-haul flights and an undetermined number of European flights to the Netherlands from Friday.

“Based on the information we have this will also count for crew members,” said KLM spokeswoman Gerrie Brand. “We cannot take the risk that crew members get stuck abroad, so we have decided to halt all long-haul flights.”

Schools and non-essential shops have already been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier. They will remain shut until at least Feb. 9.

Infections in the Netherlands have decreased steadily in the past three weeks, but health authorities say the new variants will lead to a new surge by next month if social distancing measures are not tightened.

The government currently has a caretaker status, as Rutte last Friday handed his resignation to King Willem-Alexander following a damning report on his cabinet’s handling of childcare subsidies.

Rutte has said he will remain to take decisions on COVID-19 policies until a new government is formed after the March 17 elections, seeking broad support for measures from both coalition and opposition parties.

($1 = 0.8264 euros)

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Additional reporting by Toby Sterling; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Giles Elgood, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Big Mac at a distance: Dutch McDonald’s trials virus-proof restaurant

By Bart H. Meijer

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Big Macs delivered on meal trolleys, hand sanitizers at the entrance and designated waiting spots to separate customers could become a feature of McDonald’s restaurants in the Netherlands when they are allowed to reopen.

In a trial at a restaurant in the city of Arnhem, McDonald’s has been looking for ways to maintain social distancing when the coronavirus lockdown is relaxed.

“We have tried to figure out how to keep our customers and employees safe, while maintaining a restaurant atmosphere,” McDonald’s Netherlands spokeswoman Eunice Koekkoek told Reuters.

“These are drastic changes, but we hope to make them in a way that customers don’t notice them too much.”

Restaurants, bars and other public places in the Netherlands have been closed since March 15. As of Friday, 39,791 coronavirus cases had been confirmed with 4,893 deaths.

But new infections have been dropping, prompting calls to loosen the lockdown after its current deadline of May 19.

A decision on whether to reopen restaurants and bars is expected around May 12, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte has ruled out a return to normal.

If they do reopen, they will have to keep customers and staff at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart to avoid a new wave of infections.

McDonald’s says it could introduce table service, with burgers and fries wheeled to customers on trolleys from which they can pick up their orders.

Other new features would include hand-washing stations at the entrance and a host behind a plastic screen showing customers their place in line.

Many restaurant owners in the Netherlands fear social distancing will simply put them out of business.

But McDonald’s expects its new set-up will work at 180 larger restaurants out of its 252 franchises in the country.

“On average this will allow us to serve around 66% of our normal number of customers,” Koekkoek said.

“We don’t expect reopening to be allowed before June. But even then, we will move in steps. Readjusting 180 restaurants is a tall order.”

About three quarters of McDonald’s 39,000 restaurants worldwide were operational as of Thursday, including almost all its nearly 14,000 outlets in the United States, where drive-throughs are common.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Dutch end-of-life debate flares as coronavirus tests healthcare limits

By Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Doctors in the Netherlands have been advising elderly patients to think twice before agreeing to COVID-19 treatment in hospital intensive-care units, drawing criticism that they are attempting to ration scarce ICU beds.

The affluent Netherlands is rapidly approaching the capacity of its healthcare system just over a month into the crisis, with efforts underway to double the number of intensive care beds to 2,400 by Sunday.

But with thousands of virus patients flooding IC wards, space is expected to run out within days. Hospitals fear the Netherlands will be forced to emulate Italy, where doctors had to make life or death decisions about who received emergency treatment.

Dutch MP’s raised public concerns in parliament on Wednesday after senior citizens complained about calls from doctors who raised questions about intensive care treatment, such as being put on ventilation, if they were to contract COVID-19.

The government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte was asked to clarify its policies and explain what had prompted the calls.

“The elderly are afraid that if they fall ill, they will not be welcome on the intensive care unit and will be left to die at home,” MP Henk Krol, who leads the 50PLUS party for seniors, told lawmakers.

“They think that age alone determines whether or not they will have access to a hospital,” he said.

“NOT BASED ON AGE”

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge, the country’s top official handling the response to the coronavirus crisis, rejected assertions the doctors’ calls were official government policy. He said ‘advanced care planning’ discussions between general practitioners and patients with serious medical conditions were not unusual.

“This is standard practice for doctors. We call it advanced care planning, it means having the conversation with people about ‘what you would want to happen if you get sick’,” De Jonge said.

“Patients can then say ‘if it gets to the point where I need a ventilator, where I need to go into the ICU, I would prefer not to do that’. That is a possibility, but those conversations are not based on the age of patients.”

The Dutch College of General Practitioners (NHG), which represents 12,000 doctors, denied the calls were a response to a shortage of beds.

“Some GPs started calling patients who were taken aback by these questions and because of the timing they think this is linked to a lack of hospital capacity,” Jako Burgers, a practicing GP and spokesman for the NHG, told Reuters.

Burgers said the conversations enable doctors to warn frail patients about the dangers of COVID-19 treatment, which can involve weeks on a ventilator in an ICU and then lengthy rehabilitation.

The Dutch have long had fewer ICU beds than neighbouring European countries, ranking among the bottom five in a 2012 study published in the Intensive Care Medicine journal.

The comparison of available ICU beds per 100,000 inhabitants put Germany at 29, Belgium at 15.9 and the Netherlands well below the European average at just 6.4.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; Additional reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Giles Elgood)