Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Gulyas: Government to extend validity of immunity certificates

Hungary's government will extend the validity of coronavirus immunity certificates for those who have received two vaccine doses until May 1, in line with the practice adopted by European Union countries, the prime minister's chief of staff said on Thursday.

Neither Brussels, nor any EU member state have tightened rules on immunity certificates due to the emergence of the Omicron variant, and the government does not want to put Hungarian citizens at a disadvantage compared to their EU peers, Gergely Gulyas told a regular press briefing.

Earlier, the government had planned, from February 15, to limit the validity of immunity certificates in Hungary to people who had their second Covid jab no more than six months earlier or had their booster jab.

Meanwhile, citing virologists, Gulyas said the fifth wave of the pandemic had reached its peak in Hungary, and case numbers were expected to decrease at the same rate that they had peaked.

Though the spread of the virus has been significantly faster in the fifth wave, neither the number of hospitalisations, nor the death toll has been anywhere near as high as during the previous waves, Gulyas said.

He added that although vaccines offered less protection against Omicron than against the previous variants, they were still the most effective way to prevent severe illness from the virus. Hungary has more than 8.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccine in stock, he said.

Meanwhile, government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi said Hungary would participate in the joint EU procurement of Pfizer’s antiviral drug Paxlovid for treatment of Covid. She added that enough of the medicine for 50,000 courses of treatment would be ordered initially, but that volume could be raised later.

On another subject, Gulyas said it was in the interest of Hungary and Europe as a whole to maintain dialogue with Russia, just as it was in their interest to strengthen economic ties “as far as possible within the current framework”. He added, at the same time, that Europe must do everything in its power to prevent any conflict, violence and war in Ukraine and the region.

Hungary is “aware of its position and weight”, Gulyas said, adding that it was therefore not likely to be up to Hungary “whether the United States and Europe wish or want to give Russia the guarantees it is asking for”. He added, however, that the issues of energy security and relations with Russia were as inseparable for Hungary as they were for Europe.

Hungary’s gas supply from Russia is secure until 2036, Gulyas said, noting that at their meeting in Moscow on Tuesday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that Russia would consider Hungary’s request to increase the volume of gas deliveries to the country by one billion cubic metres a year.

Hungary’s annual natural gas consumption is 9-10 billion cubic metres, Gulyas said. Under the long-term gas purchase agreement signed with Gazprom last September, Hungary has pledged to buy 4.5 billion cubic metres of gas each year from the energy giant, he noted. Gazprom will deliver one billion cubic metres via Austria and 3.5 billion via the Serbian-Hungarian interconnector, he said.

On another topic, Gulyas said it was in Hungary’s interest that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was respected by everyone, including Russia. The issue at hand is Ukraine’s future NATO membership, on which western Europe must establish its own position, he said.

Turning to the economy, Gulyas said Hungary’s GDP had grown by almost 7 percent last year, the highest growth rate since the change of regime in 1989-90. The government wants as many people as possible to benefit from the economic growth, he added.

Gulyas also said pensioners will receive the first full 13th month pension in February. He said that “thanks to the economic achievements of the past decade”, the government was able to restore the 13th month pension after it had been scrapped by the previous left-wing government.

Families will also see their 2021 personal income tax payments refunded this month and Hungarians under the age of 25 will receive their first tax-exempt salaries, he said. Doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and public service workers will also receive their increased wages this month, he noted.

Also, the budget deficit will be under 5 percent of GDP this year, he said.

Meanwhile, Gulyas announced that the government will set up a force majeure fund to provide relief for the damage caused by last weekend’s storms, adding that most of the damage had been done to crop tents. The agriculture ministry has begun to assess the damage, and the minister is hopeful that farmers can get their compensations within a few weeks, he said.

In response to a question, Gulyas called Russia a reliable gas supplier. Hungary’s NATO membership is not up for debate, he said. Hungary’s interests lie in a united NATO and in averting war in Ukraine, he said. Gulyas said Russia felt that it had been deceived in connection with the enlargement of NATO, but recognised the alliance’s expansion over the past decade and a half. What Russia does not want is for the enlargement to continue, he added.

Asked about coronavirus vaccines, Gulyas called it “harmful” that EU authorities including the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had not authorised either Russia’s Sputnik V, which he said had been shown to offer “the best possible protection”, or China’s Sinopharm which has been approved by the WHO. “Until they do so, we cannot speak of full equality,” he said.

Asked about Monday’s teacher strike for a wage hike and workload reduction, Gulyas said it was unlawful in lack of a binding court ruling on the action.

Answering a question, Gulyas said Prime Minister Viktor Orban would not attend Friday’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Concerning the campaign activities of Peter Marki-Zay, the united opposition’s prime ministerial candidate for the April parliamentary election, Gulyas said “his remarks are offensive to various communities”, adding that “his hate-mongering is unacceptable”.

“Brussels would no doubt hit the jackpot with an opposition victory because it would pave the way for the implementation of its migration plan, allow the utility bill reduction to be scrapped and thwart the promotion of Hungary’s national sovereignty,” he said. If an opposition government scrapped the utility programme, it would increase each household’s annual expenditures by 500,000 forints (EUR 1,400), he added.

Asked about the family support system, Gulyas said subsidies would be extended and expanded if the ruling parties won the ballot on April 3. He said Hungary spent the largest share of its budget on family support among EU member states.

Answering a question about European post-pandemic recovery funds, Gulyas said “Brussels would not sign an agreement during the election campaign”, adding that “they will have to come to an agreement with the incumbent government if Fidesz wins the election”. The funds, he said, included some 300 billion forints for health developments, which the government wants to launch as soon as possible.

The government “firmly rejects” proposals to privatise health services “as suggested by Peter Marki-Zay”, Gulyas said.

Gulyas also noted concerns raised by Didier Reynders, justice commissioner of the EU, concerning the transparency of the upcoming election, saying that “all observers are welcome”. He added that the government had invited OSCE monitors to observe the vote.

Referring to press reports suggesting that Marine Le Pen, head of the French National Rally, has been granted a loan by a Hungarian bank, Gulyas said he was not aware of such a transaction, but added that “it could be good business for any bank in the EU” in view of French regulations under which parties running in the presidential election will be reimbursed their campaign costs from central coffers if they garner a minimum of votes.

Asked in connection with a corruption scandal involving the head of the branch of bailiffs and a former state secretary if the rules governing public officials’ asset declarations should be reviewed, Gulyas said he hoped that “the vast majority” of MPs gave a realistic picture of their finances in the declarations. He added that Pal Volner, the former state secretary in question, did not have to return his parliamentary mandate until he was proven guilty. “Until then, he can decide whether to leave or stay,” Gulyas said. Answering a question, he said there was no evidence “even to suggest” that Antal Rogan, the prime minister’s cabinet chief, could be implicated in the scandal.

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