By Bart H. Meijer

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Bars and restaurants will close early and sporting events will be held without audiences under a three-week, partial lockdown that is expected to be announced in the Netherlands on Friday evening.

Dutch broadcaster NOS said the first such measures in Western Europe since the summer will go into effect on Saturday evening in a bid to stop a surge in COVID-19 cases, which hit a record on Thursday.

People will be urged to work from home as much as possible, and no audiences will be allowed at sporting events in the coming weeks, including top-level soccer matches. Schools, theatres and cinemas would remain open.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet will take a final decision during a cabinet meeting on Friday, and will announce the new measures during a televised news conference scheduled for 1800 GMT.

It was unclear whether the government would adopt a politically-sensitive recommendation by its leading pandemic advisory panel to limit access to public places to people who have been fully vaccinated or have had COVID-19 after the lockdown period.

New coronavirus infections in the country of 17.5 million have increased rapidly after social distancing measures were dropped in late September and hit a record of around 16,300 in 24 hours on Thursday.

The new wave of infections has put pressure on hospitals throughout the country, forcing them to scale back regular care again to treat COVID-19 patients.

A new lockdown would mean a drastic turn in policy for the Dutch government, which until last month thought that a relatively high vaccination rate would mean it could further ease measures towards the end of the year.

But it is not alone in considering strict measures as infections spike to record levels. Austria on Thursday said it was days away from placing millions of unvaccinated people in lockdown.

Around 85% of the adult Dutch population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Booster shots have so far only been provided to a small group of people with weak immune systems, and will be offered to people aged 80 years and older in December.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Edmund Blair)