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Niek Mouter: 'Thirty thousand people took our survey. We saw our server struggle to cope.' (Photo: Niek Mouter)
Niek Mouter: 'Thirty thousand people took our survey. We saw our server struggle to cope.' (Photo: Niek Mouter)

Hairdressers may cut hair again and cafés will open on 1 June. Niek Mouter delved into people’s preferences in the easing of restrictions. Are the Cabinet’s plans welcome?

Lees in het Nederlands

The Cabinet is easing up the lockdown with a plan to phase in lifting restrictions. Is this the road to freedom that the Dutch have been waiting for? Hairdressers and masseurs may start work again. Cafés, restaurants and cinemas will reopen on 1 June, followed by campsites and holiday parks on 1 July. These are just a few examples of the easing of restrictions announced by the Cabinet.

TPM researchers, including Niek Mouter, ran an online survey on the population’s preferences over the last few weeks. Thousands of people took part in a choice experiment that mapped their preferences. The research was done jointly by TPM, colleagues at other universities and the RIVM (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment). Policy officers from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports and the Ministry of Finance were also closely involved.

From the research, it appears that the Dutch believe that the corona restrictions should be lifted slowly to avoid overburdening the health care system. They also believe that this should not lead to polarisation. They do not support easing of restrictions for specific groups such as the under 25 year olds, people who are immune or the north of the country. They are fine with hairdressers reopening, but are wary about cafés, bars, restaurants and other hospitality services.

Looking at your research, how do you think society will respond to the corona exit strategy?
“I think that Prime Minister Rutte is handling it well. He constantly emphasises solidarity and unity. Our study shows that people highly appreciate these values. The vast majority of respondents do not support different forms of easing of restrictions in different parts of the country. Looking at the situation rationally, there is an argument to be made for first easing them up in the north as there were fewer corona cases there. But most respondents find this morally reprehensible.”

Fair enough, but the research also shows that the Dutch are concerned about the opening of the hospitality sector and that is exactly what is happening now.
“That’s true, but initially cafés, bars and restaurants will only be open to up to 30 people at a time. This may help calm any concerns. We did not ask about the conditions that people would support for the reopening. That was a missed opportunity. If we could do the survey again, we would go more deeply into the issue. Don’t forget, the research had to be done really fast. We got the approval of the TU Delft COVID-19 Response Fund on 9 April and only had a couple of weeks in which to design the survey. Thirty thousand people took the survey. What is striking in our research is that the biggest group that wants bars to reopen is young, highly educated men in the Randstad region and the south of the Netherlands.”

Thirty thousand people? Did I hear that right?
“Yes. This experiment was unique. I have never run a survey in which so many people took part. We do a lot of choice experiment research in our research group on subjects such as travellers’ behaviour, choices around water safety, what people would most like in dike reinforcement along rivers and so on. In a recent survey we did around the Waal River, 2,900 people took part. Ten times more took part in the corona survey.”

How do you explain such a huge number of respondents?
“People heard about it when I was interviewed by various media. I first appeared in a BNR podcast, then on Radio 1, then the NOS wrote about the research, and then I was a guest on a programme on RTL4. This all happened at the end of April, beginning of May so most of the respondents took the survey at the last minute. We saw our server struggle to cope.”

But if people could sign up themselves, how representative of Dutch society is the group of respondents?
“We see that relative to the total, many young people took part. This may distort the results. But for our first part of the survey we only processed the answers of 3,000 people who we ourselves recruited and who are a representative sample of society. The results of the first and second survey do not diverge much.”

How was the survey designed?
“The research, a Participatory Value Evaluation (PVE), placed the respondents in a seat in the Cabinet in a game-like setting. We always design our experiments like this. The respondents step into the shoes of the policy-makers. They are presented with options on the easing of restrictions and have to weigh these up. They saw the options that the Cabinet could choose from and had a list of the positive and negative effects of each option. They did have one limitation and that was that whatever they chose, the pressure on the health care system may not increase by more than 50%. They were then asked what they would advise the Cabinet to do.”

But there are still so many unknowns about the effects of the regulations.
“Of course, there are still so many unknowns about this virus. We discussed these at length with epidemiologists. They can only make rough sketches of scenarios. We designed various scenarios and presented them to the respondents. So the answer of one respondent could mean that easing of restrictions would put more pressure on the health care system than another respondent’s. For us, the interesting thing was to see the degree of pressure on the health care system that people found acceptable. This generated some strange situations. Many families took the survey at the same time and we received emails from people who did not understand why the option that they chose had a different outcome than their partner’s.”

The research on the easing of restrictions is now finished. What are you going to research next?
“We have two studies in the pipeline. We will carry out research into the corona app. We will look at what it should look like and what requirements it should meet. We will do this with our colleagues from the University of Maastricht and the Free University of Amsterdam. The other is long-term research on how the Netherlands should handle corona up to the point that there is a vaccination. We are cooperating with policy makers and epidemiologists from various institutions such as the RIVM on this one.”

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