Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Employers are asked to ensure that their employees can work from home

Hungary announces new lockdown measures to curb Covid spread

Hungary will close almost all shops and services for two weeks along with kindergartens and primary schools for the next month in an effort to tackle the third wave of coronavirus infections, the prime minister's chief of staff announced on Thursday. Shops, with the exception of food stores, pharmacies and petrol stations, will have to be closed and services, with the exception of private health care, suspended between March 8 and 22, Gergely Gulyas told a weekly press briefing. Kindergartens and primary schools will be closed from March 8 until April 7, he said.

Gyms will also be closed for two weeks, but licenced athletes will be allowed to train and compete behind closed doors, Gulyas said. Parks will be allowed to stay open and outdoor sports will also be allowed for activities in which people can maintain a safe distance of 1.5 metres, he said.

The government asks employers to ensure that their employees can work from home wherever possible, particularly in the case of those with children, Gulyas said.

Mask-wearing remains mandatory outdoors, he said. Gulyas also said that Hungary will impose tighter controls on its borders, adding, however that freight and transit traffic will not be restricted.

Wage subsidies and tax cuts introduced for the hospitality industry will be expanded for the period of the lockdown to all sectors forced to shut down by the new measures, Gulyas said.

The decision is based on extensive cooperation with mathematicians, doctors, epidemiologists and other experts. “The numbers are clear,” he said.

The pandemic is spreading faster and faster, and its reproduction rate in Hungary is one of the highest in Europe, Gulyas said.

The third wave is expected to be stronger than either of the previous waves, he said. He added, however, that another “new feature” was that vaccines were at hand and that the inoculation of citizens was proceeding well.

“We can say for certain” that Hungary is currently third in Europe regarding the inoculation rate, and is expected to top that list by next week, Gulyas said.

However, that pace is still not enough to curb the spread of new mutant variants, he said.

Vaccine procurement is lagging in Brussels, and even the use of “Eastern vaccines” can’t ensure nationwide protection within two weeks, he said.

The only short-term remedy is a drastic reduction in contact rates, he said. The operative body and experts are in full agreement on the necessity of the measure, he added.

“If we didn’t go into lockdown now, not only would the number of incidents and deaths grow, it would also delay the opening of the country,” he said.

“We have been living under unusual, and previously unimaginable circumstances for a long time. Let us hope this is the last phase of the pandemic, and let’s hope we can reach an inoculation rate that allows reopening within a few weeks or months,” Gulyas said.

The country will start to reopen, “probably gradually”, on March 22, he said.

Hungarian citizens’ wishes will be key to the details of that reopening, he said, and called on all to participate in the government’s National Consultation survey on the issue.

The government will discuss the details of reopening the country at a meeting on March 17, and will take the results of the survey into consideration, he said.

The third wave needs to be “broken”, Gulyas said, adding that the new measures were necessary for that purpose. If everyone complies, life may restart earlier in Hungary, he said.

Asked about the law on the legal status of health-care personnel on the sector, Gulyas noted that 96.3 percent of health workers had signed their contracts establishing their new legal status. He said this meant that not only had parliament passed the law unanimously, but that the sector’s workers were also fully on board with the changes.

All conditions are in place for Hungary’s health-care workers to carry out their duties even in the difficult situation they face because of the pandemic, Gulyas said. He noted the recent wage hike given to doctors and said that nurses are also seeing a gradual increase in their pay. He noted that the legislation also bans the acceptance of gratuities.

Asked about immunity certificates, Gulyas noted that the European Union has yet to pass uniform regulation on the document, adding that any suggestion to the contrary was fake news. Though the EU’s professional organisations have put forward proposals in the matter, the bloc has not adopted any regulations, he said, and expressed hope that the EU would eventually pass rules on the certificates.

Gulyas noted, at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s suggestion that immunity certificates should be issued by national authorities and they should be accepted across the bloc.

He said all member states would have to accept each other’s immunity certificates on the basis of reciprocity. Hungary will refuse to accept certificates issued by a member state that does not recognise the Hungarian document, he added.

Asked about a decision by ruling Fidesz’s MEPs to quit the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, Gulyas said Fidesz believed that the EPP was “bogged down in drafting and amending pointless regulations” rather than focusing on tackling the pandemic. “What’s especially offensive is that they’re doing all of this against a specific party or country,” he added.

Gulyas said Fidesz, “as the EPP’s most successful and biggest party”, had attempted to hold constructive talks for a long time. “But the way we see it, the European People’s Party wishes to work together with the left-liberal factions in Europe and isn’t leaving room for parties that represent traditional EPP values, like Fidesz.”

Gulyas stressed that Fidesz would remain a member of the EPP for now and has only quit the parliamentary group, “but this indicates the direction we’re headed in”.

He said one of the strongest arguments for Fidesz remaining in the EPP was the government’s good relations with the German government. Gulyas said Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is also Fidesz’s leader, had spoken with the head of Germany’s co-ruling CDU party before Fidesz made its decision. The party leaders had agreed that Fidesz and the CDU, as well as the Hungarian and German governments would be able to preserve and even improve their relations following Fidesz’s exit from the EPP group.

Gulyas also said Fidesz had certain non-negotiable values like the importance of national sovereignty, opposition to migration and sticking to its basic family policies.

The PM’s chief of staff said Fidesz was certain that there was a democratic right wing in Europe that also considered these values important.

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