Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Restrictions to stay in place until March 15

The government will maintain the current restrictions introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic until March 15, the head of the Prime Minister's Office told a weekly press briefing on Thursday. Gergely Gulyas said that the third wave of the pandemic had hit Hungary and numbers could "worsen dramatically" in the coming weeks. "The next two weeks will be particularly difficult," he added.

There are a number of new variants present in the country, spreading faster than earlier ones, Gulyas said, but added that the vaccines currently available provided protection against each of them.

Gulyas said he hoped that the current lockdown was the last of its kind, in view of the mass inoculation of people now under way. He said that the vaccination process would be accelerated in the next two weeks, with “more people receiving the jabs than the total number inoculated so far”. The restrictions could be eased in a couple of weeks, he said, adding that the government would make relevant decisions in consideration of the results of a National Consultation survey on the subject. He also said that the government would define authorisations attached to the vaccination certificates issued to people inoculated and those who have recovered from Covid-19.

The minister slammed the left wing as “opposed to vaccination” and said that “especially Ferenc Gyurcsany and his party, the Democratic Coalition” was of that stance. He insisted that their actions were contrary to the interests of the country and they were “playing with lives”. The leftist parties were against an extension of the special legal order and criticised the vaccination plan, Gulyas said, and insisted that “the only reason could be that they expect a prolonged pandemic and have better chances to snatch power”.

He insisted that “masses” of leftist mayors had recently “called for a boycott of vaccines licenced in Hungary”, and called it unacceptable.

Concerning the inoculation of senior officials, including the prime minister, Gulyas said that while politicians had been among the first to be vaccinated in many other countries, the Hungarian government did not believe it would have been right for them “to be at the front of the line”.

The government is convinced that “this is the right way to do things” even if those in charge of the epidemic response measures have an interest in being among the first to get the jab, Gulyas said. He added that Prime Minister Viktor Orban is expected to be vaccinated with the Sinopharm jab next week.

Asked which vaccine he would prefer, Gulyas said he was “not going to be picky” and would accept whichever one he was offered.

Gulyas dismissed as “untrue” Democratic Coalition MP Gergely Arato’s claim that Hungarians were not free to choose which vaccine they wanted and were “relegated to the back of the line” if they did not accept an Eastern jab.

“The vaccine is voluntary and free of charge, and everyone has a right to decide whether or not they want the vaccine that is available,” he said. “If someone doesn’t accept [the vaccine they are offered] then they will have another chance to get inoculated once their preferred vaccine is available.”

The Hungarian authorities have assessed the vaccines in use in Hungary and the state bears full responsibility for their safety and effectiveness against the coronavirus, Gulyas said.

Asked about the Health Scientific Council’s decision to reject a proposal to reopen the country, Gulyas said the government could only see as far ahead as March 15, but would like certain services to reopen after that date. The prime minister has consulted with mathematicians, virologists and professors of medicine who all agreed that Hungary’s Covid numbers were expected to deteriorate significantly over the coming weeks due to the UK variant of the virus.

The spread of the infection is accelerating, he said, adding that more people were likely to contract the virus be hospitalised and put on ventilators over the coming weeks. He expressed hope, however, that with half a million elderly having received the vaccine, the death toll would not be as high as in the past.

Gulyas added that concerts and events with large crowds would only be permitted once herd immunity is achieved.

The evening-night curfew will have to be among the first measures to be lifted, he said, arguing that it was “the main restriction disrupting people’s lives”.

Around 2.5 to 3 million vaccines will have to be administered to ensure that the most vulnerable age group is protected, he said. Gulyas said he was hopeful that 1-1.2 million elderly people would soon be vaccinated.

Those who are already vaccinated or have recovered from the infection will begin receiving their immunity certificate from March 1, Gulyas said. Then the government will have to decide on the sort of exemptions, besides quarantine rules, that certificate-holders will be entitled to, he said.

Gulyas ruled out the possibility of getting the vaccine for a fee at a private practice. The government has a vaccination programme in place and is handling the procurement of vaccines, he said, adding that it was certain that the National Public Health Centre (NNK) would not grant any other entity permission to administer vaccines.

The PM’s chief of staff was also asked about a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court declaring that the government has a duty to provide funding to local councils that is proportional to the tasks they have to carry out, and Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony’s call for local councils to be compensated in full for their lower business tax revenues.

Gulyas said the debate was not about the funding of local council responsibilities but rather about whether a part of the business tax should be left with small businesses or go to local councils. The government believes that the best way to create and save jobs is by leaving these monies with businesses, he said.

The government does not deny that local councils are in a difficult situation but is ready to talk to them and provide help wherever it can, Gulyas said.

Gulyas was asked about the three-week timeframe required by the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition (OGYEI) to test Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine compared with the shorter period of time in the case of the Chinese Sinopharm which arrived in Hungary only last Tuesday, but is already in circulation.

He said samples of Sinopharm had been purchased earlier to make it available for testing by the National Public Health Authority (NNK). The licencing took more than a month from the time the first sample arrived in Hungary, Gulyas said. The NNK also assesses every new vaccine shipment, he said, adding that this was a quicker procedure.

OGYEI’s experts will begin testing the Russian vaccine produced in a Saint Petersburg plant on Thursday, he added.

Asked about the possibility of producing the Russian vaccine in Hungary, Gulyas said that due to a lack of sufficient capacity, the local company, Fluart Kft, cannot be involved in such a project.

He noted the government’s recent decision, however, to give preferential investment status to a national vaccine plant to be set up in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.

As regards Sinopharm, China delivered 50,000 more doses in February than the expected 500,000, Gulyas said. Two additional shipments of 500,000 doses are expected in March and April, respectively, and a third one of 3.5 million in May, he added.

Asked about the contracts for vaccine imports, Gulyas said those qualified as data in the public interest and the government would release the relevant documents within the next 6 weeks. “The only exception would be data which is a business secret,” Gulyas said, adding that the price of the contract would not be disclosed.

Asked about the possibility for Hungarians inoculated abroad to get a certificate of Covid immunity introduced recently by the Hungarian government, Gulyas said the authorities would issue the document only to people vaccinated in Hungary.

Gulyas said no plans were afoot to set up inoculation booths as the Hungarian health-care network has sufficient space to inoculate as many as one million people over a single weekend.

As regards the possibility of a fourth wave of the pandemic hitting Hungary, Gulyas said mass vaccinations were expected to prevent such an eventuality.

Meanwhile, Gulyas noted that Hungary has provided ventilators to help neighbouring Slovakia which is struggling to cope with the pandemic.

On the topic of employment, Gulyas noted that legislation has been drafted on the “home office” format, including the option of an agreement between an employer and an employee on this form of work. It will allow an employee the option to choose the preferred location for work and the employer the option to give the employees reimbursement for their “home office” costs.

On the topic of the increasing pressure posed by migration on Hungary’s southern border, Gulyas said the government will continue to secure its defence. “We’re seeing numbers there that are coming close to figures of the migrant crisis in 2015,” he said.

He noted Hungarian law that defines illegal entry to the country as a crime punishable by expulsion.

Gulyas noted that the Hungarian government is in “a serious dispute” with Brussels over border protection measures.

“The EU continues to support border management whereby people arriving at the border have to be escorted across and possibly greeted with a flower. We regard this as unacceptable and dangerous,” Gulyas said.

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