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Hungary will close almost all shops and services for two weeks along with kindergartens and primary schools for the next month in an effort to tackle the third wave of coronavirus infections, the prime minister’s chief of staff announced on Thursday.

Shops, with the exception of food stores, pharmacies and petrol stations, will have to be closed and services, with the exception of private health care, suspended between March 8 and 22, Gergely Gulyás told a weekly press briefing. Kindergartens and primary schools will be closed from March 8 until April 7, he said.

Gyms will also be closed for two weeks, but licenced athletes will be allowed to train and compete behind closed doors, Gulyás said. Parks will be allowed to stay open and outdoor sports will also be allowed for activities in which people can maintain a safe distance of 1.5 metres, he said.

The government asks employers to ensure that their employees can work from home wherever possible, particularly in the case of those with children, Gulyás said.

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Mask-wearing remains mandatory outdoors, he said. Gulyás also said that Hungary will impose tighter controls on its borders, adding, however that freight and transit traffic will not be restricted.

Wage subsidies and tax cuts introduced for the hospitality industry will be expanded for the period of the lockdown to all sectors forced to shut down by the new measures, Gulyás said.

The decision is based on extensive cooperation with mathematicians, doctors, epidemiologists and other experts. “The numbers are clear,” he said.

The pandemic is spreading faster and faster, and its reproduction rate in Hungary is one of the highest in Europe.

The third wave is expected to be stronger than either of the previous waves, Gulyás said. He added, however, that another “new feature” was that vaccines were at hand and that the inoculation of citizens was proceeding well.

“We can say for certain” that Hungary is currently third in Europe regarding the inoculation rate, and is expected to top that list by next week, the minister said.

However, that pace is still not enough to curb the spread of new mutant variants, he said.

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Vaccine procurement is lagging in Brussels, and even the use of “Eastern vaccines” can’t ensure nationwide protection within two weeks, he said.

The only short-term remedy is a drastic reduction in contact rates, he said. The operative body and experts are in full agreement on the necessity of the measure, he added.

If we didn’t go into lockdown now, not only would the number of incidents and deaths grow, it would also delay the opening of the country. We have been living under unusual, and previously unimaginable circumstances for a long time. Let us hope this is the last phase of the pandemic, and let’s hope we can reach an inoculation rate that allows reopening within a few weeks or months.”

The country will start to reopen, “probably gradually”, on March 22, he said.

Hungarian citizens’ wishes will be key to the details of that reopening, he said, and called on all to participate in the government’s National Consultation survey on the issue.

The government will discuss the details of reopening the country at a meeting on March 17, and will take the results of the survey into consideration, he said.

The third wave needs to be “broken”, Gulyás said, adding that the new measures were necessary for that purpose. If everyone complies, life may restart earlier in Hungary, he said.

Featured photo illustration by Péter Komka/MTI