Photo: MTI / Lajos Soós

Hungary commissioned 4,360,000 doses of the one-dose vaccine produced by Johnson and Johnson

Elderly set to be vaccinated by Easter

Hungary's seniors will receive their coronavirus shots by Easter "depending on the number of those registered", the prime minister's chief of staff told a regular press briefing. Gergely Gulyas said the elderly were the age group with the highest ratio of people who have registered for the jab, adding, however that several hundred thousand of them were still unregistered. They will be contacted in a letter encouraging them to follow suit, he said, and suggested that "vaccination is the only tool to rid ourselves of the pandemic".

On Thursday, Hungary received a shipment of another 450,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, Gulyas said, noting that Hungary had so far received a total one million vaccine doses from China.

He called on “the left and [Democratic Coalition leader] Ferenc Gyurcsany” to stop making “anti-vax statements” and end their signature drive concerning the vaccine. “Those who refuse to be vaccinated because of that may even die,” he warned. Gulyas added that “the opposition also has responsibilities, and the vaccine mustn’t be politicised”.

So far, 1.15 million Hungarians have received at least the first jab, while 327,000 are fully inoculated, Gulyas said. The Hungarian population’s vaccination rate is second highest in the European Union, he said. Gulyas said that 11.3 percent of Hungarians had received at least the first jab, compared with the EU average of less than 7 percent. He insisted that Hungarian health services were inoculating 0.6 percent of the population a day, compared with 0.2 percent in the EU. “Therefore the Western press cannot help reporting the success of the Hungarian vaccination programme,” he said, citing a German report referring to the “extreme speed” of inoculation in Hungary.

Some 3.2 million Hungarians, less than 50 percent of the population, have registered for vaccination, Gulyas said, but added that a 60 or 70 percent ratio would be desirable.

In another development, Gulyas said that the government would make its contracts on procuring the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines available for the public within a day, and called on the European Union to allow publication of European Commission contracts too.

Brussels has “banned” publication of those contracts, Gulyas said, adding that he had turned to the commissioner in charge of the matter to allow member states to make the EC’s vaccine contracts also publicly available. He said that “many countries are much further ahead with their own purchases” and insisted that “everybody has the right to know” details of the European contracts such as conditions and timing. If disclosing those date “does not harm the interests of China or Russia, it will not harm interests of the EU, either”, he said.

On the country’s vaccination plan Gulyas said “the Hungarian government will be able to have everyone vaccinated in the first half of the year”, and will therefore order vaccines for the second half only if “it is absolutely necessary”. The vaccines contracted so far would suffice to inoculate one-and-a-half times more people than the entire population of Hungary, he said.

“We have ordered everything slated to arrive in the first half of the year, and passed on some [vaccines] which would  only be delivered in the second half, especially towards the end of the year,” he said, adding that the EC’s “claims” on the issue were “untrue and therefore unacceptable”.

On another subject, Gulyas said that the government would expand eligibility for a 10 million forint (EUR 27,200) interest-free loan aimed at supporting economic recovery to any business that has had to close in the ongoing two-week lockdown. The government has instructed the Hungarian Development Bank (MFB) to make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible, he said. Meanwhile, the innovation and technology ministry will turn to the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce with a view to notifying companies of the terms and conditions for applying for it, he added.

The lockdown has made things difficult for many businesses, especially those in the service sector, Gulyas said, noting that the government has also expanded its wage support scheme to every business that has had to close.

The government will pay half the wages of people working in the services that have now been suspended, and has scrapped employer contributions in the relevant sectors for March. Also, businesses registered to pay the Itemised Tax for Small Businesses (KATA) are exempt from paying this month’s flat payment, he said. So far, the government has made wage subsidy payments to the tune of 50.6 billion forints, he said, and suggested that payments were being made without delay.

Gulyas said some 60-70 percent of the population, or around 5 million people, would have to be immune to the coronavirus for Hungary to achieve herd immunity.

Currently, 8,329 people are hospitalised with the virus, with forecasts expecting that number to top 10,000 in the coming weeks, putting the health-care system under enormous strain, Gulyas said.

There are currently 13,244 free beds and 1,918 free ventilators in Hungarian hospitals, Gulyas said. The decision of the National Hospital Directorate to order health-care staff to relocate to hard-hit hospitals ensured that the necessary staff are also at hand, he said.

Private providers can also be involved in coronavirus care, he said.

Hungary currently has over 7,000 vaccination points, with a capacity to inoculate up to 500,000 people in a single weekend, Gulyas said. He added, however, that there are not enough vaccines at hand to fulfill that potential.

All deliveries are examined by experts ahead of distribution, and all approved vaccines are then administered to the people straight away, Gulyas said.

Commenting on the price of vaccines, Gulyas said Sputnik V cost 19.9 US dollars, or 17 euros, for both doses. Two doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine cost 63 euros, he said. The vaccines available in EU procurement are “somewhat cheaper, some by a little, some by a lot,” he said, repeating that the EU should make the prices publicly available.

Hungary has also commissioned 4,360,000 doses of the one-dose vaccine produced by Johnson and Johnson, Gulyas said.

Regarding the inoculation of Hungarian citizens living across the borders, Gulyas said Hungarian cizitens living in neighbouring countries were not automatically eligible to be vaccinated in Hungary. However, those paying health-care contributions here, or entitled to receive Hungarian health care as pensioners or students in the country, can be vaccinated, he said.

Gulyas slammed what he called the opposition Democratic Coalition’s (DK) “incitement against the inoculation of Hungarians across the borders”. He also called on the party to stop its signature drive against China’s Sinopharm vaccine, and noted the opposition’s responsibility for “the consequences of its anti-vaxxer attempts”.

Regarding re-opening the country, Gulyas said the government would decide on lifting the restrictions in view of the epidemic data at a government meeting next Wednesday. “We can’t see past March 22; I couldn’t make responsible promises beyond that date,” he said.

Regarding the likelihood of contracting an infection after vaccination, Gulyas said “no statistics” were available regarding such cases. Experience so far showed the degree of protection published by manufacturers was correct, and the symptoms would be much milder after vaccination, he said.

Vaccination certificates will be issued for everyone as soon as the first vaccine is administered, he added.

Commenting on the recently changed status of health-care workers, Gulyas said 96.3 percent of the sector’s employees had signed their contracts. Fully 727 doctors rejected the new conditions but 420 new hires have reduced the loss of doctors to 300, he said.

Under the new regulations, hospital directors will decide whether doctors can fulfill their hospital duties while maintaining private pratices, Gulyas said.

Asked about the National Consultation public survey on reopening the country, Gulyas said more than half a million people had filled it out so far, making it the most successful online version of any government survey. Asked about the new legal status of health-care personnel, Gulyas said 96.3 percent of them had signed their new contracts. Because there were 727 doctors who chose not to sign it, and 420 new recruits, the state health system’s net loss is around 300 doctors, he said.

Gulyas said exemptions to the clause on conflicts of interest in the law on the legal status of health workers were granted by hospital directors.

Asked how secondary school students graduating this spring were going to be vaccinated, Gulyas said those under the age of 18 could only be inoculated using the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, but the government had yet to decide on their vaccination.

Gulyas also expressed hope that oral final exams could make a return this year, adding, however, that would hinge on the state of the pandemic at the time.

On another subject, he said preparations for Pope Francis’s visit to Hungary for the International Eucharistic Congress in September were under way.

Asked about the opposition, he said the government would ignore their “unworthy political stunts”, arguing that now was “not the time to fight political battles” but rather to focus on tackling the pandemic.

Meanwhile, he said Serbia could be granted EU membership within 1-2 years, as enlargement in the Western Balkans was in the bloc’s interest. He added that many of the EU’s planned policies regarding LGBTQ inclusion were “unacceptable” to many of the bloc’s nationalist governments.

Commenting on criticisms of the state of the rule of law in Slovenia, Gulyas said the “otherwise serious accusations” against Hungary’s western neighbour were “meaningless”, arguing that “the allegations have nothing to do with reality”.

“Hungarians, Poles and Czechs have had their own chance to experience this,” he said. “If Brussels bureaucrats happen to not like someone, then these allegations will come up from time to time, regardless of the fact that the press in these countries is significantly more diverse than that of Germany.”

Asked about Momentum Movement leader Andras Fekete-Gyor’s proposal to scrap the existing family benefit system, Gulyas said Hungary had Europe’s “most generous” family support system in Europe relative to GDP. “This will be preserved only if the current government stays in power, as the opposition would wind up these programmes,” he insisted

Concerning the rules governing telecommuting, Gulyas said the law had been changed to allow employees to work from home even if this is not permitted by the labour code. This means employees are free to choose where they work from and employers can cover up to 10 percent of their employees’ expenses associated with telecommuting, he explained.

Gulyas said the amendment had made telecommuting easier, noting that some 400,000 people worked from home last December, up 150,000 since before the change in regulations.

As regards the March 15 national holiday, government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi said this year’s festivities would be limited to the hoisting of the national flag in front of Parliament at 8am. Though the Kossuth and Szechenyi Awards will be handed out at a later date, the names of the recipients will be released on Monday, she said.

Asked about next year’s general election, Gulyas said any number of seats in addition to the 100 required for a majority would be a “bonus” for the ruling parties. Meanwhile, citing estimates, Gulyas said the current lockdown would put a weekly 0.1 percent dent in economic growth.

He said state employment bodies would support jobseeker training courses based on market needs. “This problem is only temporary; when the service sector recovers, there’ll be a sudden increase in jobs,” Gulyas said.

Gulyas was also asked about the basis on which the government had selected Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air to operate an Airbus A330 cargo plane purchased by the state last year. He said Hungary had been in urgent need of a cargo plane last spring. The state managed to buy one, and parliament’s national security committee decided that its operation would be exempt from the scope of the public procurement law.

Gulyas said he “understands the reservations” concerning the decision to have Wizz Air operate the plane, but noted that the airline’s logistics base and headquarters are both located in Hungary. Wizz Air also has a Hungarian management, “and presumably a larger Hungarian ownership share” than other airlines, he added.


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