Photo: MTI

Number of inoculated is expected to reach 4 million on Friday

Gulyas: Pace of Hungary vaccinations ‘outstanding’ in EU comparison

The speed at which Hungary is implementing its vaccination plan is "outstanding" in comparison with the rest of the European Union, the prime minister's chief of staff said at a government press briefing on Thursday.

Gergely Gulyas said Hungary and Malta were at the forefront of Europe’s vaccination drive. Thanks to the shots, the number of new cases has been “radically reduced” and the number of deaths is decreasing, he added.

By Friday, the number of inoculated Hungarians is expected to have reached 4 million, and the government may lift further restrictions, Gulyas said, noting that the night-time curfew will start an hour later, at midnight, and shops will be allowed to stay open until 11pm.     Eateries can also open their indoor sections and serve customers with vaccination certificates and minors in their company until 11pm.

Hotels will open their doors to people with vaccination certificates and their children, Gulyas said, adding that leisure venues such as zoos, museums, cinemas, theatres, and libraries, may also be visited with the certificates. Gyms and swimming pools will be available to certificate-holders and athletes, he added.

Certificate-holders and children in their company will be allowed to attend sports events until 11pm, Gulyas said, adding that masks will no longer be compulsory at sports and cultural functions.

The chief of staff said Hungary was in a position to lift its coronavirus-related restrictions faster than other countries because its vaccination rate was significantly higher. He added, however, that preventing a fourth wave of the pandemic depended on everybody continuing to observe the regulations in place and “accept that certain facilities can only be accessed if they are protected”.

The government is planning to amend the penal code, making forging immunity certificates and presenting them a serious offence, Gulyas said. Service providers could also face serious consequences if they fail to ask customers to present their certificates, with fines from 100,000 forints (EUR 280) to 1 million forints and even imprisonment possibilities, he added.

Restrictions concerning family and private events will stay in force, the minister said, adding that wedding feasts would again be allowed once the number of inoculated Hungarians reaches 5 million, possibly by the third weekend of May.

Mask-wearing continues to be mandatory in public areas, in shops and on public transport, and restrictions on assembly will also stay in effect until vaccinations reach a viable threshold, Gulyas said.

Gulyas said the government’s decisions were a reflection of the results of the latest National Consultation survey of the general public, in which “80 percent of people supported a gradual removal of restrictions and 65 percent said that those with immunity should be exempted from restrictions”. He added that those who had not yet received their shots may get vaccinated in short order and receive an immunity certificate.

Concerning vaccine-related information the government recently published, Gulyas said the figures showed that “every vaccine is effective and there are no great differences between them: all reduce the risk of infection to a minimum.”

“The proportion of people who get sick among the inoculated is 0.4 percent,” he said, adding: “It’s not worth trusting the left’s anti-vax campaign.”

Gulyas said the government has authorised the foreign minister to conclude bilateral agreements on the mutual recognition of Covid-19 immunity certificates. Hungary will seek to conclude a bilateral agreement with every country that is open to entering into such an agreement, he said.

Under a prospective agreement, a holder of a Hungarian immunity certificate would be entitled to the same benefits as a certificate-holder of the partner country, Gulyas said, adding that Hungary, too, would recognise the partner country’s immunity certificate.

The government will establish clear rules of procedure for issuing immunity certificates for those who have not received one, which the prime minister will outline in his public radio interview on Friday, Gulyas said.

He said government offices had received several complaints in connection with the certificates.

Given that more than 4.5 million people are now eligible for the document and with their issuance being “the biggest logistical operation of the past decades”, there were bound to be technical difficulties around them, he said. The government will do everything in its power to issue all missing certificates, he added.

Gulyas said it was the responsibility of doctors to document Covid vaccinations in Hungary’s Electronic Health Service (EESZT) system. If someone does not receive their immunity certificate, they can still check whether their vaccination has been entered into the EESZT, he said. If it has, the interior ministry will automatically issue them a certificate, Gulyas added.

Meanwhile, he said the cabinet had discussed the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, adding that Hungary would soon have access to its share of the funds.

Hungary, he said, was fortunate enough to be nearing the end of the pandemic.

The EU funds consist of both non-refundable grants and credit tied to specific projects, Gulyas noted. While Hungary will draw down the entirety of the grant money it is entitled to, the government believes that it is best to manage the crisis with as little debt as possible, he added.

Hungary has managed to “survive the crisis” with a public debt level of around 80 percent, Gulyas said, adding that the aim was to keep this figure as low as possible. He said most member states were of a similar mindset, noting that 21 of them had yet to say whether they would ake up a loan.

Talks on the matter were progressing well, he said, adding that Hungary would be among the first member states to submit its recovery and resilience plan to the European Commission.

The commission, he said, recognised Hungary’s recent health-care reform that included a significant pay rise for doctors. The government has asked the EC for some 300 billion forints of support to cover part of the costs of the reform for a period of one year, Gulyas said. Discussions in the matter are still ongoing, but the EC president is open to the request and agrees with the direction of the changes Hungary has made, he added.

He said the government was hopeful Hungary could return to the rate of growth it was experiencing before the pandemic.

In response to another question on immunity certificates, Gulyas said the operative board in charge of handling the pandemic was looking for a solution to the problem of some people not receiving their certificates. He said there had been a consensus that the certificates should not be issued as soon as someone is vaccinated, given that it takes time for the jab to take effect.

Gulyas said that around 96-97 percent of certificates were being issued on time, adding, however, that when dealing with such a large sample, even 3-4 percent amounted to a lot of people.

Meanwhile, he said Hungary wanted to finish vaccinating its own citizens before helping other countries, adding that ethnic Hungarians living beyond the border were “first in line” when it came to receiving help.

Commenting on criticism levelled at a recent government study on the efficacy of the vaccines in use in Hungary, Gulyas said the table published by the government contained “precise and objective” data contained in the EESZT system.

He said the government welcomed Katalin Kariko, one of the developers of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, and others commenting on the study. Still, he insisted, the government’s study contained “facts that are common knowledge”.

Gulyas said the government had chosen not to rank the vaccines because there was no meaningful difference between them in terms of their efficacy. However, if any one had to be singled out as being the most effective, it would be the Sputnik V jab, he added.

Asked about last weekend’s reopening of restaurant terraces, Gulyas said that though not everyone had observed Covid-19 guidelines, it would also have been wrong for “police to fine everyone 50-100,000 or 150,000 forints”.

On another subject, he said the operative board was working on a “vaccine management plan” to ensure that there are enough jabs available once immunity levels wear off and revaccinations can run smoothly.

Meanwhile, he said that once Hungary passes 4 million vaccinations, those entering the country with immunity certificates would no longer be required to quarantine.

Gulyas also said Hungary began vaccinating diplomats in the second half of April. Vaccines were first administered to the staff of embassies whose countries had delivered jabs to Hungary.

Asked why it was enough for Hungarian spectators of the postponed Euro 2020 soccer Championship matches to present immunity certificates while foreigners had to present negative PCR tests, Gulyas explained that while everyone in Hungary had a chance to get vaccinated by June, this was not the case in western Europe.

As regards the 2022 draft budget, Gulyas said that thanks to the Covid vaccine, the degree of uncertainty around its planning had been “significantly lower” that with last year’s budget.

“We trust that by late May or early June, the pandemic will be over, or at least it won’t disrupt the country’s return to normalcy,” he said.

He said there was nothing standing in the way of approving next year’s budget, noting that the Fiscal Council had found that it was sufficient to reduce the public debt.

Meanwhile, he said the government will release its agreement with China on Fudan University’s Budapest campus in both Hungarian and Chinese.

Asked about a joint statement adopted by the prime ministers of the Visegrad Group countries expressing their solidarity with the Czech Republic, which recently expelled Russian diplomats over suspicions of espionage, Gulyas said the document “reflects our joint opinion and we all agree with it”.

In response to another question on the same topic, he said Hungary’s intelligence services had a duty to protect the country’s interests from anyone conducting intelligence operations on its territory “regardless of whether or not they’re an ally”.

On another subject, Gulyas said that judging by the current status of the pandemic, there was no reason why the opposition could not organise its primary elections in August.

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