Photo: MTI / Lajos Soós

New infections increasing along the Austrian border

Regular testing of essential workers to start on Friday

Hungary is set to begin testing certain essential workers for coronavirus on a regular basis from Friday, Gergely Gulyas, the head of the Prime Minister's Office has said, adding that the staff of social care homes will be the first to be tested.

The government last week decided that health-care workers, teachers and staff members of social institutions will be tested on a regular basis, determined by the operative board responsible for handling the epidemic, Gulyas told a regular press briefing on Thursday.

Testing will be voluntary, he added, emphasising that no one would be obliged to take the test.

Testing is scheduled to get under way in schools, kindergartens, creches and health-care institutions next Monday, Gulyas said.

The government offices will be instrumental in organising the testing of 191,000 people in 15,000 venues, with the testing teams always including a medical student, Gulyas said.

Regarding the coronavirus vaccine, Gulyas said Hungary has contracted altogether 12 million doses, costing 36 billion forints (EUR 99.6m), from three manufacturers. Fully 3,270,000 doses are contracted from British AstraZeneca, 4,360,000 doses from US company Janssen and 4,439,000 doses from Pfizer in addition to potential Chinese and Russian vaccine purchases now under negotiation, he said.

The government has a duty to procure any vaccine that has been duly tested and proven to be effective as quickly as possible, and so it is in talks with “every entity” potentially able to provide it, including the EU, Israel, the US, China and Russia, he said.

Gulyas thanked health-care staff for their efforts, noting that the death-to-infection ratio has declined since the spring. The health-care system is ready to handle growing case numbers, he said.

Gulyas said the number of new infections was increasing along the Austrian border, and he asked commuters to exercise extreme caution.

The government will assess the effects of the latest restrictions on Wednesday, and decide whether new measures or a prolongation of the recent ones are necessary, he said.

Gulyas said there were 580 coronavirus patients in intensive care. Hungarian hospitals have around 1,700 intensive care beds, he said, adding that this number could be increased if necessary.

He said cancer patients needed to continue receiving regular treatment in spite of the epidemic. The only reason why chemotherapy sessions may be cancelled is because they would risk harming patients whose immune systems have been weakened by the virus, he added.

Concerning the official number of Covid tests carried out, Gulyas said the numbers on the government’s coronavirus website did not yet include antigen tests for technical reasons.

Asked what would happen to bodies if morgues became completely full, Gulyas said the operative board handling the epidemic had the situation under control. Funeral service providers appear to be handling the current situation well, he added.

Asked about the timeframe of the current restrictions and whether the government had any plans to tighten them, Gulyas said the government had not discussed the implementation of tougher measures. The cabinet will review the situation and the effectiveness of the restrictions currently in place at a meeting next Wednesday, he said.

“In a situation like this, no responsible government can decide on measures that would need to be taken in 2-3 weeks’ or a month’s time,” he said.

As things currently stand, he added, the government believed that the spread of the virus could be slowed if everyone complied with the current restrictions. At the same time, the government is ready to tighten restrictions if necessary, he said.

In response to a question, the PM’s chief of staff said casinos are allowed to stay open because they are able to enforce social distancing rules. But like bars and restaurants, casinos must also close by 7pm, he added.

Asked about the government’s reasoning behind its decision to submit a constitutional amendment proposal while the special legal order is in effect, Gulyas said: “Despite the epidemic, everyone has to work and even lawmakers are expected to work in line with the normal legislative agenda.”

Gulyas was also asked whether there were any plans for primary schools to transition to online classes and whether university students studying to become teachers would be hired to ease the load on the education system. He said the government was hoping to avoid having to switch primary schools to digital classes but would do so if it became necessary. He added that there were enough teachers in the sector.

Asked if parents could take their children home if they arrive at an airport, train or bus station after 8pm, Gulyas said that although it would be preferable to avoid such a situation, “police officers will likely let the individual in question go if they present a travel ticket”.

Concerning projections on when the epidemic was expected to peak, Gulyas said experts forecast case numbers cresting around December or January.

He said there were currently 7-8 coronavirus vaccines undergoing trials. Hungary is working to obtain “even the very first one” that becomes available so that it can begin carrying out its vaccination plan, he said, adding that innoculations would be voluntary and be made available to everyone free of charge.

Gulyas called it “unacceptable” that health-care workers treating Covid patients had not yet received their 50 percent pay rise, stressing that they were entitled to a higher salary.

Asked whether the decision by many people in Hungary to vote in person in Romania and Ukraine’s local elections posed epidemiological risks, Gulyas said the number of people commuting to neighbouring countries on a daily basis was “far greater” than the number of those who had travelled to vote in those elections.

Asked about tax cuts, Gulyas said the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce had put forward proposals on cutting or even eliminating the business tax, but without submitting anything to the government in writing. If the government implements a tax cut similar to the reduction of the VAT rate on take-out food, “we will let the public know,” Gulyas said.

In response to a issue of adoptions by same-sex couples, Gulyas noted that a law on same-sex civil unions passed by the previous Socialist-liberal government in 2009 prohibiting adoption by same-sex couples has been kept unchanged by the Fidesz-led government.

Asked how families should prepare to celebrate Christmas, government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi noted that family gatherings in the country are limited to ten people. “We need two weeks to see how effective the current restrictions are, and then the government will be able to take further decisions from there,” she said.

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