Government working to ensure swift access to vaccine

The Hungarian government is working to create the legal background to have the swiftest possible access to the coronavirus vaccine once it is developed, the head of the Prime Minister's Office said on Thursday.

Hungary has signed up for all European Union research programmes and has secured 6.5 million doses of the vaccine at a cost of 13 billion forints (EUR 35.7m), Gergely Gulyas told a regular press briefing.

Meanwhile, the operative board responsible for handling the epidemic is examining Chinese and Russian vaccines, with a view to buying them should they prove effective, Gulyas said.

Gulyas encouraged Hungarians to get inoculated against the common flu to avoid multiple infections. He said Hungary currently had 1.3 million flu vaccines, adding that more would be obtained if necessary. Answering a question, he said that Prime Minister Viktor Orban had been inoculated with a domestically produced flu vaccine.

The minister noted that the coronavirus situation was worsening worldwide, and Hungary was no exception, but while the mortalities per one million residents averaged average 357 Europe-wide, in Hungary it numbered 129. Put to him that the situation had been far worse in the past 14 days, Gulyas said: “Statistics reflect a momentary state and may not have much meaning … the data must be assessed as a whole.”

Regarding preparations in the health-care system, Gulyas said 47 percent of hospital beds were unoccupied and ready to take in Covid-19 patients. Those infected will have access to care of the highest standard, he said.

He noted that nurses will benefit from a 20 percent pay rise from November and a further 30 percent on Jan. 1. Concerning a salary hike for doctors, Gulyas said details of a recently adopted agreement between the medical chamber (MOK) and the government were being negotiated, and said he trusted that open issues could be resolved. The government is expected to discuss proposals concerning rules for general practitioners in two weeks’ time, he added.

Gulyas said tourism would be shaky until a vaccine arrives. He also warned Hungarians against taking skiing holidays.

Asked whether the government was planning to switch schools to digital learning after the autumn break, Gulyas said the government was committed to keeping schools open, adding that the past two months had shown that “schools can operate even amid the current circumstances”.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said the government will leave the current rules for SZEP cards, a voucher system of fringe benefits for employees used mainly to pay for catering services, unchanged next year. The decision is aimed at helping domestic tourism, allowing cardholders a budget of up to an annual 800,000 forints (EUR 2,200) to pay hotel and restaurant bills, he said.

Responding to a question concerning the rule of law, Gulyas referred to the death of a Slovak citizen in police detention in Belgium two years ago, insisting the EU was “more interested in blackmailing central European member states than in upholding fundamental human rights”.

Asked about the EU’s climate targets, Gulyas said all member states should honour their 2030 commitments. Hungary is doing well in this regard, having reduced its CO2 emissions by 40 percent against 1990 levels, he said. Germany and Sweden, by contrast, “are not even close to meeting their commitments.” Gulyas added that it was “difficult to discuss any targets for 2050 while more prosperous founding member states walk all over the 2030 agreement”.

The PM’s Office chief said it was questionable whether the EU’s Next Generation recovery package would get off the ground.

Gulyas said Hungary disagreed with the way the EU was handling the economic crisis caused by the pandemic but, he added, the government supports the bloc’s plans to jointly take out a loan to finance the post-pandemic recovery package out of solidarity with southern member states. Every member state must make sure funds are spent as effectively as possible, he said, adding that the European Commission was due to start talks on the scheme with member states next week.

Asked about the regulation of cryptocurrencies, Gulyas said the EU was working on putting together a uniform regulatory framework in this area, noting that the matter also affects cross-border services.

Asked about the renovation of Budapest’s M3 metro line, he said the matter fully fell within the competence of the metropolitan council, adding that the government was hopeful that the city’s leadership could get the project done. The government has offered the city council financial assistance in a number of areas to prevent it from having to borrow to fund its projects, but has yet to receive a reply, he added.

Asked about the situation around Budapest’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE), Gulyas said the government was not involved in the talks between the university’s leadership and its students and instructors, but expressed hope that the two sides would reach an agreement on the future of the institution. The government’s sole aim is to ensure that there is quality theatre and film education in the country, he said, noting that the university’s supervisory board had been provided the necessary level of funding to achieve this.

Asked to comment on Pope Francis’s remarks that same-sex couples should be protected by civil union laws, Gulyas said the Fidesz-led government had kept a law on same-sex civil unions passed by the previous Socialist-liberal government intact. He added, at the same time, that under Hungarian law, gay couples are not eligible to adopt, arguing that every child had a right to a mother and a father.

Asked to comment on a decision by eight civil groups to turn to the ombudsman for fundamental rights over what they said were hateful remarks by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in connection with a children’s book depicting sexual minorities, Gulyas said the ombudsman “has a broad range of powers but he has a hard time dealing with nonsense”. Orban had said Hungary was tolerant regarding homosexuality “but there is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed, and that is how I would like to sum up my opinion: leave our children alone”.

On another subject, he said there was no specific date set for the next meeting between Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that plans for the meeting may be affected by several factors, including the pandemic.

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