Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Results already decided, opposition LMP says

Public survey on easing lockdown to be launched on February 15

The government is launching its latest National Consultation public survey concerning when to lift coronavirus restrictions during the week of Feb. 15, the Prime Minister's chief of staff said on Friday.

Gergely Gulyas told an online press conference that the second wave of the pandemic in Hungary was in a phase of stagnation, meaning any easing of restrictions would have to be “cautious and gradual”. If current trends continue, the restrictions may be eased in two steps, on March 1 and a month later, he said.

Concerning vaccinations, Gulyas noted Hungary has effective agreements with Russia and China, giving the country a good chance of inoculating “significantly more” people in February and March than other European Union countries.

Gulyas said it was important for the government to implement measures that had widespread public support and to consider what measures Hungarians would be willing to accept and suffer.

Whereas the epidemic had appeared to be waning up to the end of last week, it now seemed to be stagnating, he said, adding that a new variant of the virus spreading faster than earlier ones may be a factor. Hopefully a third wave could be prevented, he said.

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff noted that health-care staff, alongside residents and employees of homes for the elderly, have now been inoculated.

Gulyas mentioned Portugal as a negative example, a country which eliminated all restrictions for the winter holidays and was now suffering from extremely high coronavirus numbers.

Concerning the economy, Gulyas said that the government’s crisis management measures had succeeded in protecting jobs. He said that the government’s primary aim when the virus emerged was to keep employment at the same level as during the 2010-2020 period. “We seem to have succeeded,” he said.

He said there were 4.5 million people working in Hungary today, suggesting that crisis management did not necessarily have to entail job losses.

Gulyas said that during the crisis of 2008-2009 there had been mass unemployment, with only around 3.6 million people in employment. Now the jobless rate is below 4 percent and 4.5 million people have jobs, he said, adding that this was the difference between left-wing and conservative crisis management.

The government has also decided to grant exemption to restaurants, cafes and gyms from paying rent on state or municipally owned properties between Feb. 1 and May 31, Gulyas said.

He said that granting a similar exemption to tenants of privately owned properties would also be a “legitimate” proposal.

Gulyas argued that Hungarian law offered a possibility for withholding rental payments in vis major situations in which the tenant was prevented from generating revenue. But the government “does not wish to mediate in legal disputes between private partners,” he added.

Gulyas noted that retirees would receive the first quarter of their 13th month pension in February, and said that “what pensioners were stripped of under the left wing’s crisis management, the [incumbent] government will return over the course of 4 years”.

Meanwhile, on the subject of the government’s home renovation subsidy scheme, he said the grants and subsidised loans to families was a key part of its action plan to revive the economy. Reducing VAT on homes to 5 percent would boost construction in 2021, he added.

Gulyas said that providing employment for people under 25 was also important, noting the related personal income tax exemption from next year. Also, businesses and private individuals can benefit from a moratorium on debt repayments until June 30, he added.

Gulyas said the government has received a request from the Hungarian Olympic Committee to give potential competitors in the Tokyo Olympics vaccination priority, and 800-900 doses have been set aside accordingly. Gulyas noted that Prime Minister Viktor Orban is meeting Andrej Babis, his Czech counterpart, in Budapest to discuss Covid-related developments.

As regards vaccines outside of the EU package, he said, the authority was still issuing permits, and the government has simplified the import permit.

Asked whether Hungary would be prepared to supply ventilators to Portugal or provide any other help, he said aid would be considered if such move did not put Hungarian lives in a risk.

Commenting on the economic aspects of the epidemic, Gulyas that hopefully the government’s new initiative for an interest-free loan of up to 10 million forints (EUR 28,000) granted to SMEs for restarting their business would help them bridge over pandemic-related difficulties.

The minister called Hungary’s access to the EU’s recovery fund and seven-year financial framework a key issue of the year. The first tenders are scheduled to be called on February, and the government is working to guarantee the inflow of amounts well over 1,000 billion forints (EUR 2.8bn), he said. These transfers, he said, were not donations but either loans to be repaid or monies due to Hungary because it had opened its market to the competitors of more advanced EU member states, he said.

On the subject of domestic politics, asked about Klara Dobrev’s refusal to rule out running as the Democratic Coalition’s prime ministerial candidate, Gulyas accused her husband, DK’s leader and the former Socialist-Liberal prime minister, of having “bankrupted the country, trampling on the most basic civil rights … and using the secret services for party purposes while allowing the Russian spies into the country.”

“I don’t know whether Klara Dobrev had any political views during this period or whether she gave advice to her husband — or whether she gave it but he did not listen ….” Gulyas said. Whatever the case, he said, she was unfit to aspire to the post of prime ministerial candidate.

“The darkest outlook for this country would be for the Gyurcsany family to return to government,” he added.

Asked about whether the government would amend the so-called lex CEU law — the law requiring universities that award foreign degrees to maintain a campus abroad — following the a ruling by the European Court of Justice, Gulyas said the government had a number of disputes with the EU in various areas, but fewer than those of other EU member states.

He said that if Hungary and the European Commission were unable to resolve those disputes, it was up to the European court to decide the outcome. When it came to the law affecting the case involving the Central European University, he said the same principle would apply. An existing European example is being sought that may be incorporated into the Hungarian legal system, he added.

Response to a recent suggestion by the Ukrainian president’s party that Hungary’s national anthem should be banned in Ukraine, Gulyas said that unless Kyiv settled the situation of its ethnic minorities, including the Hungarian community, in line with international standards, the country would stand no chance of good-neighbourly relations, an outlook for EU membership or joining NATO’s association treaty.

Asked about the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, Gulyas said Hungary had joined the EU statement that condemned related action taken by the Russian authorities.

Regarding the regulation of social media, Gulyas he said all opinions must be given constitutional protection as long as they do not incite hatred or incite violence. At the same time, however, he added that the state’s authority in the realm of free speech was compromised when a global corporation decided on its limits, weakening the power of the state to an unacceptable degree.

LMP: Public survey results ‘already decided’

Opposition LMP on Friday expressed bafflement over the government’s decision to launch a public survey concerning when to lift coronavirus restrictions, saying that it had so far “kept every bit of meaningful information secret from the public and doctors”.

“We’re aware that the tool they insultingly refer to as a National Consultation is nothing more . than a form of manipulation by [ruling] Fidesz,” LMP co-leader Mate Kanasz-Nagy told an online press conference.

He called on the government “not to waste time with this” and “release the results of the survey which are already there in the drawers”.

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