Photo: MTI / Lajos Soós

Government green-lights the use of any coronavirus vaccine used to inoculate over one million people worldwide

Restrictions to remain in place until March 1

Coronavirus-related restrictions will remain in place until March 1, Gergely Gulyas, the head of the Prime Minister's Office, told a regular press briefing. The government made the decision after a meeting of the operative body responsible for handling the epidemic on Wednesday. Since being introduced in November, the restrictions have proven effective in curbing the epidemic, he said. However, any easing without widespread vaccination could trigger further waves and result in even stricter measures later on, he added.

The government will also extend its special powers for 15 days from midnight Feb. 7, and request that parliament extend the special legal order by 90 days, Gulyas said, adding the government would then review the situation in the second half of February.

Gulyas said the restrictions could only be eased if the number of active infections continued to drop or if enough vaccines were at hand.

Lockdowns in most western European countries are far more severe than Hungary’s restrictions, as a third wave of the pandemic seems to be spreading, Gulyas said.

Guylas said that in order to speed up vaccine procurement, the government has decided to green-light the use of any coronavirus vaccine used to inoculate over one million people worldwide and licenced for emergency use elsewhere. Hungary’s public health authority will continue to assess all vaccines imported to Hungary, he added.

Due to the European Union’s sluggish procurement procedure, EU-bought vaccines will not suffice for mass inoculation, Gulyas said. Hungary is working to achieve the 70 percent inoculation rate set by the European Commission as soon as possible, he said. However, it will also need vaccines from other sources, such as the UK’s AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm, he added.

Gulyas noted that the EU has yet to approve AstraZeneca, even though it has been in use since December.

Regarding Sputnik V, Gulyas said the Hungary’s pharmaceutical authority approved the vaccine after a “thorough, two-month review”. Sputnik V is safe and was manufactured using cutting-edge technology, he said. Germany, he added, is currently looking to approve it. Hungary has contracted enough Sputnik to inoculate 300,000 people, he said.

Sinopharm has proven to be very effective, as 15 million people worldwide have already been vaccinated using it, Gulyas said. Serbia is already using the vaccine to inoculate its citizens, among them ethnic Hungarians, he said.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has delivered 13 million doses to the US, 2.7 million to Israel and 8.5 million to the European Union, he said, an amount which he said was too small for effective protection.

Regarding government measures to protect the economy, Gulyas noted the coronavirus pandemic had taken a toll on the hospitality industry. After talks with the sector’s representatives, the government is taking steps to speed up the payment of wage support for entrepreneurs hit by the pandemic, he said. Since the scheme’s introduction in November, the sector’s players have applied for a total of 27 billion forints, 7 billion of which has already been paid out, he said.

Meanwhile, Gulyas welcomed last week’s agreement on a 4 percent minimum wage rise. As a result of the agreement between employers’ and employees’ representatives, the minimum wage in 2021 will be 167,400 forints before tax for unskilled workers and 219,000 forints for skilled workers, he said. The government will also raise the wage of unskilled fostered workers to 85,000 forints (EUR 236) and to 110,000 forints for skilled workers, he said. The government will also launch a scheme to support small local shops in small localities, many of which have been forced to close due to the pandemic, Gulyas said. The government is allocating 45 billion forints for a tender for small shop owners, he said. The aim is to create “community spaces while also offering postal services and over-the-counter medicines,” he said.

Gulyas criticised Brussels over its “unsuccessful” vaccine purchase procedure, noting similar criticism by other European politicians over delays. He said the European Commission was in a position to take legal action against vaccine producer Pfizer. If the commission could speed up deliveries in this way, then the Hungarian government would support legal steps, Gulyas added. He said that private health-care providers were not in the position to make their own vaccine purchases, making matters more difficult for the state.

Regarding vaccination registration in Hungary, Gulyas noted that the number of applications has risen to over 2 million.

In connection with the Russian Sputnik V Covid vaccine, Gulyas said that Hungary would take delivery of 300,000 doses by the end of February and it expects to receive another batch at a later date enough to inoculate 700,000 people.

He called the Russian vaccine “undoubtedly one of the best” available today, arguing that interest towards it was also keen in western Europe. A licencing procedure for the vaccine in Europe will also begin soon, Gulyas said.

Commenting on possible vaccination of over-65s using the AstraZeneca product, Gulyas said all vaccines would be used in line with the authorities’ regulations. The European authority has not yet given approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine, Gulyas said, noting however that Hungary possessed a licence “based on a British licence”. Gulyas insisted that AstraZeneca’s was an excellent vaccine, and this also applied to the over-65s. He welcomed reports that the European authorities were set to approve the vaccine by the end of this month.

Asked about the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, Gulyas said Hungary is to take delivery of 500,000 doses next month, enough to inoculate 250,000 people. “We hope that Sinoparhm will receive a temporary licence as soon as possible with a government decree already prepared to back it up,” he said, noting that the Chinese jab has already been used to inoculate 16 million people worldwide, including in Serbia. “It would be totally irresponsible to let lengthy examinations precede the issuance of a licence,” he said.

Gulyas said Hungary’s National Public Health Centre (NNK) will examine every type of imported vaccine.

Asked about the left-wing’s demand for restaurants and entertainment venues to be reopened, Gulyas noted that a few months ago the opposition had demanded the full shuttering of those facilities, even if there were fewer Covid-19 cases at that time. He said the venues would only be allowed to reopen if this did not endanger lives.

He said the government was continually consulting with virologists and other experts on possible dates when such venues may reopen, adding there was a consensus among them on maintaining the status quo. The experts believe that only mass vaccinations would serve as a long-term solution, he said.

Guylas said the act of reopening a restaurant in defiance of the rules would not be qualified as civil disobedience, and owners and guests risked being fined.

Asked about the government ban on local councils raising business tax in large cities, Gulyas said that half the tax remained in the pockets of small and medium-sized enterprise thanks to government meausres. In times when protecting jobs is a priority, reducing the tax burden of businesses was the best option, he said.

As part of its coronavirus crisis relief, the central government has halved the local business tax this year for companies with annual turnover of under 4 billion forints (EUR 11.1m) and fewer than 250 people on payroll.

The government is prepared to hold talks with local councils, including opposition-led ones, on paying compensation for their losses in business tax revenue, but some municipalities seem to be waiting for help from the European Union, the prime minister’s chief of staff said.

Gulyas said that extending the special legal order in force was necessary to maintain the current restrictions, including the curfew.

Asked about the opposition’s move to convene a special session of parliament to discuss government measures in response to the epidemic, Gulyas called the initiative a “frivolous political stunt”. He added that neither he nor the prime minister would attend the session convened for next week.

Concerning Hungary and Poland’s legal challenge against a European Parliament resolution condemning the two countries in connection with the EU’s Article 7 procedures launched against them, Gulyas said the two governments would consult with each other on the matter. Hungary, he added, will submit its appeal to the Court of Justice of the European Union by March 15.

Asked about the status of Hungarian-Ukrainian relations, Gulyas said Hungary was sticking to its stance on fundamental issues impacting bilateral ties, such as Ukraine’s laws which Hungary believes violate the right of the local Hungarian community to use its native language.

Concerning government preparations to draft legislation regulating the operation of social media giants in Hungary, Gulyas said only the state had the legal right to curb free speech, and only in extreme cases. “But the tech giants … are doing just that.” Gulyas added that the most effective way to handle the issue would be for the EU to regulate tech companies uniformly. “Absent of that, national regulation is better than nothing.” Because platforms like Facebook enforce their own will, rather than regulations approved by Hungary’s parliament, “the censorship they impose is arbitrary,” Gulyas said, adding that Hungary was looking for ways to address the matter effectively.

On the topic of migration, Gulyas cited Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen as saying that his country should work to reduce the number of migrants seeking to enter Denmark to a minimum with a view to protecting social cohesion. “Hungary has been saying this for a long time,” Gulyas noted. “We’ll see if this indicates a turning point in what has so far been a particularly pro-migration Scandinavian migration policy.”

Asked about Justice Minister Judit Varga’s application for a government housing subsidy for the purpose of renovating a summer home at Lake Balaton — and her family’s recent purchase of a 200 million forint home — Gulyas slammed criticism of the minister’s purchases as “disgusting left-liberal propaganda”. Gulyas said Varga had availed herself of the government subsidies lawfully. If Varga and her family do not move into the home that has been renovated using housing subsidies, they must pay back the grant in line with the law, he added.

Leave a Reply