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Education requires 'careful, gradual' reopening, state secretary says

Gulyas: Government aims to have as many vaccinated as possible

The government aims to ensure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, Gergely Gulyas, the prime minister's chief of staff, said on Thursday, adding that there was a high chance that everyone who has registered will get their jab before the end of May. The number of inoculated has surpassed 3.09 million, with vaccine acceptance growing steadily, he said.

Up to now, some 4.2 million have registered for the vaccine, he said. Local doctors receive the list of those to be inoculated, and they then decide who to inoculate first, he said.

He said there was no difference between vaccines in terms of their efficacy and insisted that each one available in Hungary was “efficient and provided protection”. He added, based on information from the Hungarian authorities, that the vaccines “are even more effective then indicated by their makers”, adding that only one percent of those inoculated became ill — and even they were at a lower risk due to the vaccine.

Out of the vaccines ordered by the European Union, Janssen had “dropped out”, decreasing Hungary’s potential by 500,000 doses. The government is in negotiations to make up for that lost amount, he added.

The government will launch a giant poster campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated starting on Thursday, he said.

Meanwhile, he said wage subsidies for businesses running bars and eateries is being expanded to cover the month of May, Gulyas said. Bars and restaurants can start serving customers outdoors when the number of Hungarians inoculated against Covid-19 reaches 3.5 million, which is expected around the middle of next week, Gulyas said.

The government is issuing a decree allowing restaurants to use public spaces free of charge, Gulyas said, adding however that “some Budapest districts” were “planning to raise those fees in the middle of the pandemic”.

Gulyas welcomed the “consensus between the government and the city” administration in this regard, and he called on the mayor, Gergely Karacsony, to “talk to people in his own party who take contrary measures” in certain districts of the capital.

He noted the Hungarian tourism agency and catering unions have produced guidelines for the hospitality industry so that pandemic-related rules are observed after reopening.

Meanwhile, the reopening of schools will proceed gradually, Gulyas said, with maximum precautions taken in line with the responses people gave in the government’s national consultation survey.

“In the first phase, kindergartens and the lower grades of primary schools will reopen next week,” Gulyas said. Creches have been open all along and “a large percentage of parents were making use of that option”, he added.

Gulyas confirmed that the Sputnik V jabs to be used as second doses would be arriving on time and could be administered to everyone 21 days after the first dose. He added, however, that most virologists were in agreement that it would still be safe to administer the two doses 25-30 days apart.

Meanwhile, he said once all teachers are vaccinated it would be left up to general practitioners to decide on the order of the waiting list.

Gulyas said it was unlikely that last week’s pace of vaccinations could be sustained, referring to the slow delivery of jabs coming from the European Union and “the loss of the Janssen vaccine”.

He said the Hungarian government had also ordered a review of the Janssen jab. If the virologists reviewing the vaccine conclude that it is safe to use, Hungary will put it to use, he said, adding that the findings of the review will be made public.

Gulyas also said that there was no need to substitute the second dose of the AstraZeneca jab for another type of vaccine, arguing that the British-Swedish drugmaker’s shot was “showing excellent results”.

Asked if the version of the Sputnik V vaccine being used in Hungary was the same as the one on which a study by medical journal The Lancet was based, Gulyas said all batches of the vaccine that arrive in Hungary are reviewed by the national drug regulator. If the regulator finds that the given batch is safe and effective, it approves its use, he added.

Gulyas said Sputnik V was among the best Covid-19 vaccines and was “even better than the Western jabs”.

He said that while the Pfizer, Sinopharm and Sputnik V vaccines were being delivered on time, the other vaccine manufacturers had run into problems regarding their deliveries.

Concerning surgeries, Gulyas said no critical operations were being suspended and cancer treatments were also ongoing. Only screening tests have been suspended, but acute surgeries are still being performed, he added.

Gulyas also said that there are currently 1,523 Covid patients in intensive care units.

The PM’s chief of staff said he believed that all vaccine recipients would be able to travel abroad in the summer if the status of the pandemic allowed it. He said it was “unrealistic” that anyone would be barred from an EU country because they had received a vaccine not approved by the bloc.

Gulyas said that by the summer, those who are vaccinated will no longer need to quarantine when returning home. For now, however, quarantine rules remain in place, he said, adding that it would preferable were only business travellers to travel abroad.

Asked when the pandemic may be over in Hungary, Gulyas said it was difficult to say and also depended on how long it would last in other countries and whether new variants would emerge.

He said Hungary would only be completely safe once the pandemic ended the world over.

All Hungary can do, he said, is inoculate as many people as possible. Once the country achieves herd immunity, after vaccinating 6 million people, “we’ll be able to say that the pandemic is over,” he added.

Concerning next Monday’s reopening of primary schools, Gulyas said it would be up to the heads of the institutions to allow absences for students. But because teachers cannot be expected to teach the same lesson twice, primary school classes will be held exclusively in person going forward, he added.

He said the government would wait for vaccinations to reach 3.5 million before deciding on the next stage of the country’s reopening. The government’s job is to accelerate vaccinations while ensuring that Hungary is able to function, he said.

Gulyas said the tourism and hospitality sector had been hit the hardest by the pandemic over the past 13-14 months. This sector will therefore reopen as soon as its is safe, he added.

Gulyas said that like health-care workers, restaurant workers will not be required to get the vaccine either.

He said it was likely that once vaccinations reach 4 million, the government will introduce rules that are tied to the immunity certificate.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said parking would remain free as long as it was justified by the status of the pandemic.

On another subject, he said the government will submit the 2022 draft budget to parliament at the end of the month.

Answering a question concerning a possible decision by the Budapest metropolitan council to cancel the 2023 World Athletics Championships should the government insist on changes to municipal scheme to construct a students’ quarter to include a campus for China’s Fudan university, Gulyas said that the government would observe its earlier deal with the municipality. “The students’ quarter will be completed,” he said, adding that the plans for the students’ quarter and the campus were “in full harmony”.

Commenting on the mayor of Budapest, Gulyas said that Gergely Karacsony “has been behaving as if he sees his municipal position as a springboard” for his bid to become prime minister after the 2022 election. Karacsony, he added, sought political conflicts with the government “in areas where we used to see eye to eye”.

Leftist leader Ferenc Gyurcsany had made a strategic decision to “attack” the government’s measures during the pandemic, he said, adding that it was “regrettable” that Karacsony “has followed suit”.

On another subject, the minister said that racist remarks made by a professor of Szeged University were incompatible with values held by the government, and expressed the government’s apologies for having proposed that Laszlo Gulyas receive a high state order.

Parbeszed opposes reopening of kindergartens, schools

The opposition Parbeszed party on Thursday called on the government withdraw its decision to fully reopen kindergartens, adding that younger pupils in primary schools should be allowed to stay home beyond that date.

Bence Tordai told an online press conference that the government’s decision to reopen kindergartens and primary schools affected some 660,000 kindergarten children and lower graders, as well as 1,.2 million parents.

He added that many “responsible” parents would probably keep their children at home and many teachers would not return to the classroom either.

Tordai asked parents to put safety first and send their children back to school only if their supervision cannot be ensured in any other way.

Maruzsa: Education requires ‘careful, gradual’ reopening

Schools must be reopened “cautiously and gradually”, the state secretary in charge of public education said on Thursday, adding that a “smaller circle” of schools would open at a slower rate than originally planned.

Zoltan Maruzsa said kindergartens and primary schools for the first four grades will open on Monday, while children in grades 5-8 and secondary school students will go back to their classrooms on May 10.

Maruzsa told an online press briefing that teachers who registered for vaccination had received their shots. By last Sunday, 200,000 teachers and other schools staff received at least their first shots, he added.

No infection hotspots have formed around creches which have been open since March 8, he said.

Concerning the reopening of kindergartens and primary schools for the younger children, Maruzsa said that more and more parents were returning to their jobs as the economy was restarting, and the number of children taken to school or kindergarten to be supervised during the day was increasing. On Wednesday, he said, 11 percent of children turned up at kindergartens.

“Children are less susceptible to the virus,” he said, adding that the number of infections in the lower grades was “half to a third” of that in higher grades.

When schools reopen, measures such as temperature checks, disinfection and physical distancing will again be applied, he said. As for physical distancing, Maruzsa said that classes could not be halved because “that would require twice as many teachers”. Teachers in the classroom education cannot be expected to hold online classes simultaneously, he said.

Parents reluctant to send their children back to the kindergarten or school can apply for permission to headmasters and headmistresses, though students who skip more than 250 classes in a school year could be required to take an exam.

The heads of the National Teachers’ Corps and trade union PSZ welcomed the government’s decision on reopening schools, Maruzsa insisted.

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