Restaurant and bar terraces to open over the weekend

Vaccination numbers to reach 3.5 million on Friday

The number of Hungarians vaccinated against Covid-19 will probably reach 3.5 million on Friday, and restaurant and bar terraces may open the following day, the prime minister's chief of staff said on Thursday. Gergely Gulyas told a press briefing that open-air facilities, similarly to shops, will stay open until 9.30pm, while the night-time curfew will begin an hour later at 11pm.

Reopening catering facilities is “the first step towards regaining freedom”, Gulyas said, adding that he hoped faster steps could follow. He added that “a large amount of vaccine is expected to arrive soon”.

During the next week one million doses of the Chinese vaccine will arrive, as well as 200,000 first doses of the Russian vaccine, Gulyas said, adding that the second dose of the latter would follow promptly. Over 300,000 doses of Pfizer will also arrive next week, he added.

Mass inoculation is putting huge strain on health-care workers, Gulyas said.

The number of vaccinated may surpass 4 million next week, and those registering now may get their jabs within a few weeks.

So far, some 4.4 million have registered for the vaccine, Gulyas said. Hungary will need some 6 million people vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he added.

Gulyas said an online system for making appointments for the vaccine is being currently tested.

Regarding the economic response to the pandemic, Gulyas said the amended budget for this year and the 2022 budget would focus on relaunching the economy.

Proposed changes to the 2021 budget have been tabled in parliament, while planned changes for next year will be submitted in a few weeks’ time, he said.

A fund equal to 12 percent of Hungary’s GDP, or 6,000 billion forints (EUR 16.5bn), will be established within this year’s budget to restart the economy once the pandemic has abated and the country is close to achieving herd immunity, Gulyas said. A similar fund of 7,000 billion will be created in the 2022 budget, he added.

On another subject, the minister said that catering firms will be entitled to wage subsidies for the month of May, irrespective of whether they reopen outdoor facilities.

If parliament approves the two budgets, it will have ensured a “lifeline” for the economy and possibly spurred a vigorous growth as early as this year, he said.

The number of job holders grew by 66,000 in March compared to February, Gulyas said. The government’s pledge to restore all jobs lost to the pandemic will be met once a further 10,000 jobs are created, he said.

Restaurants will be eligible for wage subsidies regardless of whether they opened their terraces or not, he added. Gulyas said the payment of subsidies was “fast and effective,” and the government has already disbursed 71.7 billion forints of the 72.2 billion requested.

Gulyas insisted that the decision to reopen schools and kindergartens had been a good one, with 60 percent of kindergarteners and 75 percent of 1-4 grade pupils back in school at the first week of in-person teaching, Gulyas said. Their numbers are continuing to grow, he added.

At the same time, Gulyas slammed opposition political forces and “trade unions embroiled in opposition party politics”, accusing them of “doing their utmost to sow uncertainty and fear regarding the reopening of kindergartens and the elementary schools.”

Regarding the proposal now before lawmakers to extend the special legal order in Hungary, Gulyas said it was designed to ensure that the country retains its ability to take fast action to ensure protections against the coronavirus pandemic.

Gulyas said Hungary was implementing “the most successful vaccination programme of the EU”, with the number of vaccinated Hungarians increasing and new infections shrinking, but he warned that “the epidemic is not over”, necessitating an extension of the current order.

Under the proposal, the special legal order would be extended until fifteen days after the start of parliament’s autumn season and the government may terminate the special legal order at any time when its powers applicable under such conditions were no longer necessary, he noted.

Terminating the special powers would be “in our joint interest”, he said, as this would signal the end of the epidemic. But the government must be able to make swift and effective decisions while the virus is still around, he added.

Gulyas lamented the lack of political unity on the issue and he called on the opposition to reconsider their combative stance.

“Trying to discredit the health-care system with fake news and videos during the protection effort is hardly a political feat,” Gulyas said. He insisted the opposition continued to attack the vaccines, and still had a draft proposal tabled in parliament which attempted to ban the “most effective vaccines,” he added. Gulyas called on the opposition to abandon its anti-vaccination stance.

Hungary would be “much worse off” and “significantly more people would die” had the government not purchased vaccines from the East, Gulyas said.

The minister said that one percent of those inoculated with at least the first shot had contracted coronavirus but their symptoms were “significantly milder”. In the case of those fully inoculated, the figures were “even better”, he said.

Even though full protection is only achieved after the second shot, already one dose significantly reduces the risk of infection, Gulyas said. This is the reason why vaccination certificates are being issued after the first jab, he said.

The “rights” certificate holders will be entitled to exercise will be determined in the coming week and announced by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Gulyas said.

Regarding the Hungarian research into the vaccines accredited in the country, Gulyas said the results will be published at a later date. At the moment, Sputnik V seems to be the most effective of all, and “Sinopharm seems better than Pfizer”, he said. At the same time, all vaccines are extremely effective, he said.

Vaccine producers currently guarantee six months of protection for those inoculated, Gulyas said. Therefore, it is possible that some will need booster shots in September, he said.

Gulyas warned that “anti-vaccination campaigns shaking the trust in vaccines” may cost lives. The average age of those dying after contracting Covid remains above 70 in Hungary, while some 20 percent of the fatalities is suffered by 50-65-year-olds, he said.

There is currently one child with Covid-19 on ventilator, he said.

Regarding the reopening of borders for Hungarians with family members in neighbouring countries, Gulyas noted that the inoculation rate across the borders lags behind that of Hungary. One of first steps in reopening the borders, however, will be to allow people to see their families, he said.

In the coming days, Orban will announce steps for the next stage of reopening the country, scheduled for when the number of those vaccinated reaches 4 million, he said.

Meanwhile, regarding the Chinese Fudan University’s campus planned in Budapest’s 9th district, Gulyas said improving the quality of Hungarian higher education was in the entire country’s interest. Fudan has been cooperating with the Corvinus University for years, Gulyas noted.

Hungary welcomes all top-50 universities, be they American, British or Chinese, Gulyas said. At the same time, he noted that the Central European University was banned from operating in Hungary because “it basically operated as a printing press for degrees, without a campus in its country of origin” and not because it was financier “George Soros’s university.”

Regarding concerns in connection with the student housing project originally planned for the Fudan site, Gulyas said the government would honour all agreements with the Budapest municipality on the issue. The housing project will provide accommodation for at least as many students as originally planned, regardless of whether they are studying at Fudan or elsewhere, he said.

Regarding Hungary’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Gulyas noted that Hungary and the Visegrad Group were one of the first countries to express solidarity with Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Ties between Hungary and Ukraine have been strained, however, ever since the curbing of the Hungarian minority’s right to mother tongue education, he said. Hungary is thus the only EU member state to block Ukraine’s accession to NATO, he added.

Answering a question on foundations handling the assets of public institutions — including universities — Gulyas said the reorganisation of universities was vital to ensure the country’s competitiveness while expanding “academic freedom” as the state would no longer have direct influence over their operation. The assets of these foundations can only be used for public purposes, and not as private fortunes, he said.

On another subject, Gulyas said the government aimed to avoid cancelling summer youth camps, adding that a decision may be made in the second half of May in light of pandemic indicators.

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