The Dutch government has vowed to hold firm on a nationwide Covid-19 curfew after the country was rocked by three nights of street violence and rioting.

Violent protests have taken place in cities across the Netherlands since Saturday evening, a day before the imposition of the country’s first curfew since the second world war. Rioters in more than a dozen cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven looted shops, attacked police cars and in some instances threw rocks at hospitals.

Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, condemned the “criminal violence” which he said had nothing to do with “fighting for freedom”. The Dutch police association has said the street violence is the worst the country has seen in 40 years.

“We must win the fight against the virus together, because only then can we regain our freedom,” the prime minister said.

Police have said the rioters have been predominantly young men who have organised violence using online messaging platforms such as Telegram. Hubert Bruls, chairman of the Dutch Security Council that oversees health and public safety in the country, blamed “copycat” behaviour.

“It is terrible how a few thousand people all over the country have been holding us hostage for a few days now because of the violence they commit,” he said.

A host of government ministers have said the Netherlands would retain the curfew that runs from 9pm to 4.30am, introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. Speaking ahead of an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the riots, finance minister Wopke Hoekstra said the government would not “capitulate to a few idiots”.

Rather than being politically motivated, the unrest has been blamed on small groups of young men who are not politically organised. Police in Amsterdam said they have identified football hooligans among the rioters.

“I see boys aged 20 and 21 who are at the start of their working life, but they’ll receive a claim for damages because they found it necessary to loot a supermarket,” said Ferdinand Grapperhaus, justice minister.

The rioting comes as the country prepares for elections in March that will test Mr Rutte’s popularity after more than a decade in power.

He is serving as a caretaker prime minister after his cabinet was forced to resign over a benefits scandal this month.

Mr Rutte’s government has resorted gradually to stricter containment measures after coronavirus infections grew rapidly from the end of 2020.

While the prime minister won plaudits during the first phase of the virus, his government has since come under fire for being too slow to reintroduce lockdown measures.

The Netherlands also rolled out its Covid-19 vaccination programme much later than most EU countries and has the bloc’s second worst vaccination rate after Bulgaria.

Mr Grapperhaus said that local police have been given the power to impose immediate and unconditional prison sentences on the rioters, who will also have to pay the cost of damages caused to property.

Police said 184 arrests were made across the country on Monday evening, with 1,741 fines imposed for breaking curfew rules. This followed the arrest of hundreds more over the weekend.