Photo: MTI

Approval process for the CanSino and CoviShield jabs is still ongoing

Gulyas: Reopening to continue when 3 million are inoculated

The government will take steps to ease Covid-related restrictions once 3 million people have been vaccinated, the prime minister's chief of staff told a press briefing on Thursday, adding that this was likely to happen within 5-6 days.

Gergely Gulyas noted that over 1.6 million people had received vaccine shots over the past month, adding that Hungary was “one of the fastest vaccinating countries” in Europe.

The number of Hungarians inoculated with at least the first jab is expected to exceed 4 million before the end of April, Gulyas said.

Gulyas said there was no significant difference between the vaccines on offer in terms of the level of immunity they provided, adding that the European Medicines Agency had recently judged the AstraZeneca vaccine to be “reliable and effective”.

“Any jab is safer than no jab,” Gulyas said, advising people not to be “deceived by conflicts between pharmaceutical companies reported in the press.” “Business interests also motivate those reports,” he said.

So far 3.95 million people have registered to be vaccinated, while another 200,000 health-care staff have been inoculated without registration, which means that over 50 percent of Hungary’s 8 million adults have already been vaccinated or soon will have been, Gulyas said.

The minister said “good progress” was being made in the inoculation of teachers, adding that 85 percent, or 66,000 staff, had received at least a first shot. He asked teachers to consider parents “shouldering the massive weight” of closed schools. He said it was “crucial” that classroom education resume on April 19. Online education, he added, had been managed “better than expected” but “fulfilling educational tasks effectively requires a physical presence.”

Concerning the economy, Gulyas said shops and services that were allowed to reopen on April 7 would still be eligible for central wage subsidies for the entire month. So far businesses have been granted a total of 66.5 billion forints in such subsidies, he added.

Government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi said the government would soon launch the next component of its rural development programme aimed at preserving jobs and creating new ones around the country. She said the new 25 billion forint budget chapter would provide grants to companies with less than 10 employees in towns and villages with a population under 5,000. The maximum grant available would be 70 percent of the project costs, she said, adding that the money may be used to finance wages, purchase equipment and pursue IT developments, among others. “Not only do all lives matter, but so does every business,” she added.

Asked about when Hungary would be finished vaccinating everyone who has registered for the jab, Gulyas said it was difficult to say, given that the number of registrations was continuously rising. Soon everyone who is registered will be inoculated, he said, adding that hopefully many more people would register.

Gulyas said everyone who has registered for the vaccine and has a valid social security number could be inoculated by the end of May. He added that hopefully the country could return to normal in late May or early June.

He said the third wave of the pandemic in Hungary was likely past its peak. If the national vaccination drive continued at its current pace, Hungarians would most likely be able to return to restaurant terraces this month, he added.

Meanwhile, he said the government would make a decision on the exemptions immunity certificate-holders will be entitled to when vaccinations reach 3-4 million.

Asked about the view that the lifting of restrictions should be tied to the number of people who are fully inoculated, Gulyas said vaccine recipients already develop some level of immunity after receiving the first shot. Though two shots are required for an even higher degree of immunity, those who get at least one shot are significantly less likely to get infected, he said. The government’s position that the first shot is the most important is based on expert opinions, Gulyas said, adding that there was “no rush” to lift restrictions.

Concerning AstraZeneca’s jab, Gulyas said Hungary will continue to administer the vaccine’s two doses 12 weeks apart. Hungary will not suspend the vaccine’s use or make any changes to how it is administered, he said, arguing that there was no reason to do so and neither the European nor the Hungarian authorities had made any changes to the rules.

Meanwhile, he said the approval process for the CanSino and CoviShield jabs was still ongoing.

On another subject, he said it should be left up to experts to decide which vaccines should be administered to 16-18-year-olds and when. Vaccinations for this age group will remain registration-based, but the government has yet to decide whether it will be the parents or the children who will have to register, he said.

Gulyas also said it was not an unnecessary risk to reopen schools on April 19th, arguing that more than 100,000 teachers have already been inoculated and the first dose of the vaccine already provides a significant level of protection against Covid-19. He said that while it was justified to vaccinate teachers out of turn, there were many other critical workers in the country who had not received either of their doses yet. Gulyas said secondary schools will hold their written final exams in May and plans are to have the oral exams in June.

Asked about the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors’ support for media coverage of the pandemic from hospitals, Gulyas said that while the chamber itself may support it, most doctors did not. He said the matter also raised questions relating to human dignity, noting that a total of 1,827 people are currently in intensive care.

Asked if Hungary would increase its coronavirus testing capacities, Gulyas said there were no plans to make any changes to the current testing practices.

Gulyas said there are 267 active infections among health-care workers.

So far 90 percent of the elderly population has been vaccinated, while the inoculation rate in the over-65 age group is 87 percent, he said.

On another topic, he said attendance of sporting events, including the postponed Euro 2020 soccer Championship matches in June, would be limited to those who have been issued an immunity certificate.

Concering the leftist parties, Gulyas said that their “irresponsible” approach towards the coronavirus situation was “lamentable”, adding that the Democratic Coalition “is still collecting signatures against the Chinese jab”.

He called on the opposition parties to revise their “earlier, ill-advised position” and encourage people to get vaccinated. He insisted that “if the government had listened to the opposition and had not procured Eastern vaccines, at least 1.3 million lives would now be in danger”. If the opposition were in power, Hungary’s vaccination ratio would be around the EU average of 13 percent rather than 26 percent, he said, adding that the opposition had committed the “spectacular political sin” of putting its own political goals ahead of “protecting the safety, lives and health” of the public.

Meanwhile, answering a question about German football club Hertha BSC’s dismisal of Hungarian coach Zsolt Petry over his recent remarks on migration and same-sex marriage, Gulyas said that the case raised suspicion that Germany had “violated fundamental values”. He stressed that freedom of expression was a shared European value.

He said one of the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes had been German, and “we wouldn’t want the 21st to have one, too”. He adding that he agreed with “every word” Petry had said. What Petry said about marriage “coincides with an effective ruling of the German constitutional court,” Gulyas said. His remarks on migration are “a European, restrained and civilised statement made in defence of a European identity, which must not be punished in a rule of law,” he added.

Concering a question about the status of ruling Fidesz’s delegates in the European Parliament, Gulyas said that since the European People’s Party had “made it clear that it is not a right-wing party”, Fidesz and Prime Minister Viktor Orban were working to “contribute to building a democratic European right which fully respects the fundamental values of the rule of law”. To that end Orban recently met Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki, Gulyas noted. “We would like to participate in building a political family for the right-wing, Christian ideal in Europe,” he said.

On another subject, Gulyas said he found the International Monetary Fund’s forecast of 4.3 percent GDP growth in Hungary this year and 5.9 percent the next realistic, adding that the 2021 figure would depend on when the country could “reopen”. Protecting people’s health is the foremost goal but “returning to the regular routine as soon as possible is also crucial,” he said.

Answering a question about a planned “students’ quarter” in Budapest, Gulyas said the city’s leadership was trying to suggest that setting up a campus for China’s Fudan university was in conflict with those plans. Gulyas insisted that it was the other way round: one of the “elite universities of the world” locating a branch in Hungary would “give meaning” to the student quarter scheme.

Answering another question, Gulyas said that the government was not planning to place all colleges and universities under the control of private foundations.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said that while the number of suicides had significantly decreased after 2010, “confinement and Covid-related stress” had caused that number to increase by 5 percent in 2019-2020.

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