Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Booster jab needed for vaccination certificate from February 15

From February 15th, Hungarians will only be eligible for a vaccination certificate if they have received a third jab or have had second dose within six months prior, the prime minister's chief of staff said on Thursday.

For those below the age of 18, two jabs will suffice to obtain a certificate, Gergely Gulyas told a regular press conference.

“The significance of having recovered from the coronavirus will change after the Omicron variant,” Gulyas said. “It’s the vaccine that ensures protection rather than having recovered from the disease.”

Taking the booster jab, available for adults from four months after the second dose, will be required for a valid vaccination certificate, he said, adding that the current cards displaying a QR code would not have to be replaced.

The government has decided to shorten quarantine periods for people testing positive for Covid, the minister said. Adults will be required to self-isolate for a seven-day period and will be allowed to leave quarantine after five days if they are symptom-free and produce a negative Covid test, Gulyas said.

Unvaccinated primary school children in grades 1-4 will be required to quarantine for five days if a positive case is confirmed in their class, he said, adding that they will be allowed to take part in classes online while isolating.

Otherwise, classroom education will carry on uninterrupted, he said. Hopefully, he said, extending vaccination to the 5-11 age group would help facilitate smooth classroom education and “normality will be restored”.

Concerning Omicron, Gulyas said the jab ensured protection against serious symptoms rather than the infection itself, adding that all vaccines licenced in Hungary were effective. Omicron, he added, accounted for a significant proportion of new infections, and warned that the number of new infections was “growing fast”, with the number of people becoming sick expected to grow significantly in the next few weeks. He added, however, that Omicron caused less serious symptoms, and in other countries a higher number of infections had not resulted in a higher number of hospitalisations or deaths. He said he hoped the situation in Hungary would follow that pattern.

Gulyas said Hungary had a sufficient number of hospital beds, with only 25 percent of them occupied by Covid-19 patients, adding that 2,261 Covid patients and 596 patients whose Covid status was unconfirmed were currently hospitalised. Fully 8,546 beds in Hungarian hospitals are unoccupied, he said, adding that the capacity could be increased if necessary.

Gulyas stressed that the primary protection against Covid was vaccination, adding that Hungary had a total 9.2 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, and Sinopharm vaccines. He welcomed the large number of shots administered during the recent vaccination campaign. Jabs without registration will continue in February on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, he said, adding that currently 64 percent of Hungarians were vaccinated, “a good ratio in the region, though we are in the last third in European comparison.”

Meanwhile, Gulyas said last year’s economic growth in Hungary could be as high as 6.5-7 percent, an “unparalleled economic achievement since 1989”. Last year’s economic figures, he added, were “encouraging”, with indicators in November and December better than expected despite “a number of hardships” in 2021. He said the automotive sector could have performed better if not for the global chip shortage.

Gulyas noted that rising energy prices had started “an inflationary spiral” in the world, and he insisted that the EU’s energy policy would result in further price hikes. The government is determined to fight higher prices and save people from the burden of inflation as much as possible, he said, adding that the government’s scheme reducing utility bills had helped each households save 500,000 forints, while he also hailed the government’s move to put a cap on fuel prices, saying that the government would decide whether to maintain that measure in the middle of February.

As regards the prime minister’s announcement on Wednesday that the government was ordering price cuts on basic foods, Gulyas said that hopefully the measure would make life easier for those struggling to make ends meet. He noted that the price of sugar, wheat flour, sunflower-seed oil, pork leg, chicken breast and milk with 2.8 percent fat will be reduced to their price on Oct. 15 last year.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said the government welcomed the decision to hold the general election and a referendum on protecting children on the same day, pointing out that it would save the budget 7 billion forints (EUR 19.6m).

He said it was a rare occasion to have consensus among all political parties on a specific issue. He thanked opposition Parbeszed lawmaker Timea Szabo for her proposal to hold the election and the referendum on the same day.

Gulyas said hugely important issues were at stake in both ballots, and he added that the government asked everyone to express their opinion not only in the general election but also in the referendum.

Meanwhile, government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi said the government would contribute funding to localities with populations under 5,000 to finance pay hikes for their mayors.

In response to a question, Gulyas said the government was being cautious when it came to shortening the quarantine period, adding that it had approved a “more conservative” proposal in the matter.

Asked about free Covid tests, he said the government had always prioritised vaccination over making testing free.

He also said the government will issue a decree this week on the option of a fourth Covid shot for those who ask for it after consultations with their doctor.

Asked about vaccination rates, he said there were geographical reasons behind the relatively low rate in central Europe compared with western Europe. The vaccination rate in Hungary, however, is still higher than in neighbouring countries, with the exception of Austria, he added.

Asked about recent comments by opposition prime ministerial candidate Peter Marki-Zay, Gulyas said the majority of his remarks “are in line with the positions held by the left over the past decades”. “That’s what it’s been easy for the Hungarian left wing to support him,” Gulyas added.

He said a potential opposition coalition would also be tainted by anti-Semitism. Referring to conservative Jobbik, Gulyas said that though anti-Semitism was not “a continuation of the left’s past activities, they’re still allying themselves with those who, just a few years ago, called for the listing of Jews”.

Concerning the 13-month pension, Gulyas said the Socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsany had scrapped the measure in the 2000s, and Marki-Zay, too, was against it. “So the 13th-month pension would obviously be under threat if the left came to power,” he said.

Asked if a new left-wing government could be expected to privatise health care, Gulyas said the last left-wing government had wanted to privatise medical care and hospitals. “And now their prime ministerial candidate is saying that only privatisation can help the sector in the current situation,” Gulyas said. “Peter Marki-Zay thinks health care is a business.”

He also said that most remarks coming from the opposition were not criticisms levelled at the government but rather “open hate-mongering”.

Asked if there would be a prime ministerial debate ahead of the April 3 general election, Gulyas said it was “best to wait for the start of the official campaign period” when it came to dealing with the campaign.

In response to another question, he said the government would not compensate retailers for a shortfall in their revenues stemming from the rollback of food prices. Retailers have an annual 150 billion forints in profits, while the new measure will not even cost them 20 billion, he argued. Gulyas said the government had been careful not to cripple any of the industries when it determined the specific products the policy would apply to. Regulating the price of bread, for example, would have generated losses for bakeries, he said.

The decision on capping prices will remain in effect for three months but can be extended, the prime minister’s chief of staff said.

Gergely Gulyas said the reason last October’s prices were used as the reference for the cap was that there had been no inflation pressure then and “nobody was complaining yet” about prices at the time.

Retailers must stock the products in question and “a multi-level, strict system of penalties” for rule-breakers included a possible ban on trading, he said. The decree to be published within the next few days will stipulate fines against violators at the earliest stage, he added.

In response to a question, he said it was a reasonable cause for concern that retailers may counterbalance the loss resulting from the new measure by raising other prices. The government will monitor the developments, he added.

The government also has access to other means of regulating prices, he said, adding that Hungary’s legal system recognised the institution of centrally regulated prices.

The government is seeking ways to suppress inflation and hopes that predictions about inflation returning to 2-4 percent this year would turn out to be the case. He added that no other government was introducing as many anti-inflation measures as Hungary’s.

The measures aimed at reducing inflation are expected to result in a combined 2 percentage point reduction, he added.

He also said that reducing VAT tended not to lead to a drop in retail prices but rather increased retailers’ profits.

Commenting on the planned purchase of Budapest Airport, he said, “We will wait until after the [April 3 general] election” but the government’s position remains unchanged: “We always considered it right for the national airport to be in state ownership, or at least in Hungarian ownership.”

Meanwhile, Gulyas noted that the French president had participated in a Visegrad Group meeting during Hungary’s presidency of the group, adding that the German chancellor, too, was welcome to attend a V4 meeting.

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