Illustration – Photo: MTI

DK: Government spent HUF 300 billion on 'unnecessary' ventilators

Hungary to have 5 million vaccinated after Pentecost, minister says

Five million Hungarians are expected to have received at least their first jab by the final week of May, the prime minister's chief of staff said. Meanwhile, the cabinet is mulling further easing pandemic-related restrictions, Gergely Gulyas told a regular press briefing.

Gulyas said that under the government’s plan, Hungarian citizens living abroad will also be entitled to receive a Hungarian immunity certificate from next week. Hungarians inoculated against Covid-19 in member states of the European Union, NATO or the OECD, and in Russia or China, can apply to obtain a Hungarian immunity certificate after submitting proof of their inoculation to the Hungarian authorities, he said.

Starting on May 28th, wedding celebrations will be allowed again regardless of the number of vaccinations at the time, he said.

The number of inoculations is currently close to 4.5 million, Gulyas said.

Vaccination of the 96,000 registered 16-18-year-olds will take place from Thursday to Tuesday, he said. The remaining 144,000 Pfizer vaccines are also expected to be used by then, he said.

Because both Western and Eastern vaccines have been administered, Hungary’s vaccination plan is one or two months ahead of other European countries, Gulyas said.

“Although restrictions regarding immunity certificates will remain in place until August, we may have a relatively normal summer,” Gulyas said.

Those who only accept Western vaccines will also be inoculated by end of June the latest, Gulyas said.

Five million people have registered for vaccination already, and another 260,000 people working in health care and law enforcement, as well as the residents of elderly care homes, have been vaccinated without registration, he said.

Hungary “leads the pack” with nearly 56 percent of adults inoculated, Gulyas said.

Meanwhile, social immunity is growing, along with falling caseload and fatality numbers, he said. However, the regulations in force will have to be observed until five million Hungarians have received their jabs, he said.

Regarding wage subsidies for companies suffering from the pandemic fallout, Gulyas said 86.5 billion forints (EUR 241.7m) have already been disbursed. Companies have so far applied for 87.1 billion in wage subsidies available until the end of May, he said.

Regarding the European Union’s recovery plan, Gyulas said the government trusted that the EU would quickly approve its plan for how to deploy the funds which the government submitted at the end of April.

Relaunching the economy speedily is in the whole continent’s interest, he said.

The government’s plan on using the funds received through the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF) will be published on the government’s website within a few days, Gulyas said.

The main objectives remain the same, with 34 percent of the funds going towards health-care development, Gulyas said. Education, another high-priority sector, will get over 50 percent of the funds, he added.

The RFF monies will serve to boost growth and competitiveness, he said.

Government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi said summer camps will open after June 1, once the number of inoculated reaches 5 million.

She noted an app using QR codes to show whether someone is inoculated is about to be released. Synchronised with Hungary’s electronic health-care service site (EESZT), the app will show the name and social insurance number of the person checked, and whether they have already been vaccinated, she added.

Gulyas said the restrictions applying to gatherings at funerals would be lifted once Hungary reaches 5 million vaccinations.

On another subject, he said there were no plans to accept negative PCR tests at events and establishments where entry is conditional on presenting an immunity certificate. Everyone has the opportunity to get the vaccine, Gulyas argued, adding that PCR tests were not as reliable as a jab.

Gulyas attributed a slowdown in the vaccination rate to people being “picky” about the jab they want. Close to 56 percent of Hungary’s adult population has been inoculated, he said, adding that the vaccination rate could even reach 65 percent by early June.

“We have to accept that the vaccine is voluntary and that everyone is free to decide whether or not they want the jab and which one they want,” Gulyas said. “However, we’re in such good shape in Hungary that we can soon declare an official result.”

Citing expert opinion, Gulyas said 55-70 percent of a country’s population had to be vaccinated in order for the country to achieve herd immunity, adding that countries where the vaccination rate was similar to Hungary’s had seen their Covid caseloads decline.

The government will not judge anyone who chooses not to get the vaccine, he said, adding, at the same time, that they needed to make a decision on who should and should not be allowed to enter enclosed spaces

In response to a question, Gulyas said that including 16-18-year-olds, a total of 5.3 million people out of the 8.2 million who are eligible have opted to get vaccinated. The vaccine is a “national issue”, he said, arguing that the more people get inoculated, the more lives would be saved.

Asked about Hungary’s bilateral pacts on the mutual recognition of immunity certificates, Gulyas said Hungary has so far signed such deals with Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, Bahrain and North Macedonia. The foreign ministry is in talks with more countries, and announcements can be expected on further bilateral deals, he said.

Gulyas said Hungary was likely to have such pacts in place with all countries popular with Hungarian tourists.

On another subject, Gulyas attributed “contradictory statements” coming from Germany regarding the country’s acceptance of vaccines to the upcoming election campaign there. He said the Hungarian government would welcome a bilateral agreement with Germany allowing Hungarians and Germans to travel to each other’s country.

Asked about the EU’s planned “vaccine passport”, Gulyas said that since the bloc had yet to approve any legislation in the matter, the best Hungary could do was to conclude bilateral agreements on the mutual recognition of immunity certificates.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said the cabinet had also discussed Hungary’s long-term principles concerning the management of its vaccines. The government’s aim is to have enough vaccines available to be administered to those who lose their immunity.

Gulyas also said hospital Covid units could now start shrinking their staff and doctors were being sent back to their original practices and departments.

Asked about the decision to tie hospital treatment to paid PCR tests, Gulyas said those who are ineligible for the vaccine or have not yet received their immunity certificate would not have to pay for the test.

Asked about graduating secondary school students who were in quarantine during last week’s written school-leaving exams, Gulyas said they would take the exams at a later date — either this month or the next.

Asked about the opposition’s primary elections, Gulyas said the government had no official opinion on the left-wing’s selection of its candidate for prime minister. “We’re rooting for the success of the country,” he said.

In response to another question, he said the government had no plans or the opportunity to change the election rules, noting that Hungary’s election law prohibits any changes to the rules from Jan. 1 of the year preceding the election.

Asked to comment on the opposition-led metropolitan council’s “closed-door operations”, Gulyas said the government encouraged everyone to follow its own example and make themselves available to the media. He said that unlike the government, which has been holding regular press briefings for 6-7 years now, Budapest’s left-wing leadership “is not as available to the press”.

Asked to comment about Democratic Coalition MP Laszlo Varju’s denial that the opposition had submitted to the house a draft resolution on banning the use of the Sinopharm vaccine, Gulyas said it was “better to tell the truth than falsehoods, especially when there was documented proof in the matter”. He said the left-wing opposition had yet to withdraw the draft resolution that sought to ban the use of both the Chinese and Russian Covid vaccines.

Gulyas said the left wing should “issue an apology for their actions during the pandemic”. He said the left had proven during the pandemic that “it isn’t even willing to do the bare minimum in the interest of national unity” when a crisis situation called for it.

Asked if he believed a local referendum could be called on the establishment of the Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University, Gulyas such a vote could be held on matters that fall under the jurisdiction of the local council and that do not involve international treaties.

On another subject, Gulyas said the Hungarian government had no plans to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), arguing that Hungary’s constitution made it clear that the powers of prosecution lie with the public prosecutor’s office. He added that the EPPO was headed by “a Romanian prosecutor who has a record of launching anti-Hungarian procedures”.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said the government was looking at the areas of health care where doctors who have signed contracts establishing their new legal status could keep their private practices.

Asked how much damage the pandemic had inflicted on the Hungarian economy, Gulyas said that while last year the economy had contracted by 5 percent, the finance ministry projected a growth rate of 4.2-4.3 percent for this year. “If we exceed this projection a bit, then by the end of the year we could be back where we were at the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. Gulyas added that the government expects the economy to grow by more than 5 percent next year.

Asked about a government proposal to replace the position of the director of the National Atomic Energy Authority (OAH) with that of a chairperson with a nine-year mandate, Gulyas said the bill aimed to satisfy an EU request to have the authority function as an independent body rather than one controlled by the government. The change, however, would only take effect in January, he said, noting that the government did not want to make changes to the status of the authority until the upgrade of the Paks nuclear plant was fully approved.

Gulyas said having the OAH led by someone who was not a member of the government for a nine-year period served to guarantee the authority’s independence. Until now, the OAH had been managed by an expert appointed by the prime minister, he said, adding that the new leader would still be someone “whose expertise is beyond reproach”.

In response to a question, Gulyas said Hungary would make a swift decision on providing humanitarian assistance to Israel if it asked for any.

Meanwhile, he said the government could resume in-person press briefings next month at the earliest.

DK: Government spent HUF 300 bn on ‘unnecessary’ ventilators

The opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) has accused the government of unnecessarily spending 300 billion forints (EUR 838.2m) to buy 16,000 ventilators as part of its coronavirus protection efforts.

DK board member Olga Kalman told an online press conference on Thursday that the government was “giving away” ventilators to the tune of 10 billion forints. “It was obvious even at the time of purchase that the limits of Hungarian health care are defined by the number of doctors and nurses and not ventilators,” she said.

The government “stole from the Hungarian people three times: first, when they paid for the overpriced equipment, then when they stored it at [entrepreneur] Lorinc Meszaros’s warehouses for eye-popping fees, and now, when they give them away for free,” she said.

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