Mark Rutte, the caretaker Dutch prime minister, apologised on Monday for lifting all Covid restrictions too soon, as the government was forced to shut nightclubs again after just two weeks.

Social distancing curbs and midnight closure times for bars and restaurants have been brought back as the delta variant pushed infections in the Netherlands to the highest level so far this year.

The government also cancelled all festivals and events with large crowds and live music for the next month.

"What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice," Mr Rutte told reporters on Monday. "We had poor judgement, which we regret and for which we apologise."

His comments come as the UK prepares to lift most Covid restrictions on “freedom day” next week, with Sajid Javid, the health secretary, saying on Monday that the country must unlock on July 19 or risk “not opening up at all”.

In recent weeks, cities such as Amsterdam have seen French and German numberplates on the streets, long queues of young people outside nightclubs, and revellers spilling out onto the streets from bars late at night.

Most of the new infections are among 18- to 25-year-olds in the Netherlands

Cases in the Netherlands have jumped eightfold since the country reopened on June 26, with more than 8,500 people testing positive on Monday compared to around 500 just over two weeks ago.

"The recent increase in numbers is faster than foreseen," the Dutch Outbreak Management Team (OMT) said in a letter to parliament last week.

Most of the cases are among young people.

"We’re seeing a recent exponential increase in the number of infections specifically among 18-25 year-olds," the OMT said, adding infections happened mainly at nightclubs and within the hospitality sector.

A student party in Rotterdam has been linked with 78 infections aboard a boat a week ago, while another cluster was linked to a nightclub in Enchede, with 165 of the 600 attendees testing positive for Covid after its opening weekend.

There are also serious concerns that a patchy “test for access” scheme in clubs has led to some people being given false negative results.  

The OMT said that outside the younger age group, “there is no obvious increase".

Hospital admissions are so far still in single figures. But Health Minister Hugo de Jonge warned that this could be threatened by the current "unprecedented" increase in infections.

Health experts are also concerned that although young people may be less likely to require hospitalisation, more than a quarter report symptoms of long Covid.

Mr Rutte’s apology marked a sharp turn from his stance last week.

When he first announced the changes to Covid restrictions on Friday, he repeatedly defended their earlier easing as a "logical step" and refused to take any blame for possible mismanagement by his government.

‘It is best not to jump the gun’

This drew sharp criticism from some, who said the government had thrown caution to the wind as it encouraged young people to go out again.

"We’ve learned from the Dutch experience that it is best not to jump the gun," Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s health minister, told the VTM commercial television station.

Mr Rutte has also urged people to get vaccinated.

“This is not an obligatory vaccination, but please, people, the chance that you will get [the virus] is very high if you are not vaccinated, so please get informed,” he said last week.

After a slow start, the country has so far given out more than 17.7 million jabs.

So far, 65 per cent of people have had a first jab and almost 40 per cent have had two.

A surge in the delta variant across Europe has forced a number of countries to step up their efforts to battle the virus.

More than 30 towns in Spain’s Valencia region are imposing night curfews to counter a soaring case rate among unvaccinated youngsters.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, announced on Monday that Covid jabs would become mandatory for health workers amid a slowdown in vaccination rates and a sharp upturn in new infections.