Hungary is not yet in a position to start easing lockdown measures imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the prime minister’s chief of staff said on Thursday, adding that continuing vaccinations was the only way of protecting people from the virus.
Citing expert projections, Gergely Gulyás told a weekly online press briefing that Hungary was nearing the peak of the third wave of the pandemic. Though the daily caseload and death rate is “extremely” high, Hungary’s health-care system has sufficient capacity to treat patients, he added.
Gulyás emphasised the importance of observing restrictions and reducing person-to-person contact with a view to containing the spread of the virus.
If those regulations are observed, “lifting the restrictions may be just weeks or even days away,” he said.
Noting new cases in the past 24 hours amounting to over 6,500 as well as 207 Covid-related deaths, Gulyás said the third wave was expected to be “tougher” than the previous two.
He thanked health-care staff for their work, including senior medical students who have been involved in the protection efforts since last week. Hungary still has 11,000 free beds and 1,700 unused ventilators, he said.
The health-care system is capable of treating two-and-a-half times more people needing ventilators than the current numbers, Gulyás said. The disaster management authority has also prepared a plan to increase the number of hospital beds, a “plan we will probably not need,” he added.
Regarding the inoculation campaign, Gulyás said it was imperative to “get vaccines from wherever we can”, adding that Hungary’s inoculation rate is currently second only to Malta in the European Union. Vaccinating the elderly and those living with chronic illness remains a priority, he said.
“If we are fast enough with inoculations and have a large number of people registered to receive a jab, we can avoid a fourth wave,” he said.
PM Orbán to announce plans and measures for the upcoming period on Friday
Gulyás said the government wanted to reopen the country gradually, and would tie the specific stages of reopening to the degree of inoculation. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Friday will consult with the operative body responsible for handling the epidemic and announce plans and measures for the upcoming period in his regular Kossuth Radio interview later that morning, Gulyás said.
During reopening, the government will consider the results of its recent National Consultation survey, Gulyás said. The survey will conclude on Friday, with the results announced over the weekend, he added.
On the topic of vaccination certificates, Gulyás said 1,440,000 certificates had already been manufactured and 1,260,000 mailed to those already vaccinated.
Hungarians to be fully vaccinated by June
Hungary’s population is expected to be fully inoculated against the coronavirus by May or June this year, Gulyás said.
All vaccines delivered to Hungary are being used within a week, unless they have to be set aside to be used as second jabs, he said. The timing of second jabs is subject to rigorous regulations, and the serum has to be stocked until another delivery arrives to ensure compliance, he said.
Gulyás insisted that it was necessary to purchase vaccines from Eastern countries because “Brussels has messed up” procurement. A little more than half of the vaccines used in Hungary will come from the East, he added.
Regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine which was suspended in several countries due to reports of dangerous side effects, Gulyás noted the World Health Organization had said the AstraZeneca vaccine was reliable. “Hopefully, the European Medicines Agency’s statement on Thursday [on the vaccine’s examination] will end the uncertainties,” he said.
Gulyás said that AstraZeneca “seems to provide protection without causing complications”.
Although the serious conditions reportedly connected to the vaccine should be examined carefully, the incidents were so few that causality could not be determined, he said, adding that Hungarian health authorities were also examining the vaccine.
Hungary is engaging in talks “with every supplier that can deliver vaccines by April or May”. The details will be published only after the contracts have been signed, he said.
Meanwhile, China has delivered vaccines ahead of schedule, and the “the Russians promised to make up for the February delay by the end of March,” Gulyás said.
Gulyás said that thanks to the inoculation campaign and other factors, caseload is expected to fall drastically after the third wave. Half of those above the age of 65 who have registered for the vaccine have already been inoculated, he said. Further, while the registered number of infections is around 500,000 in Hungary, latent cases may be 4 to 10 times that number, he said. Some estimates put the number of people who have gained immunity by recovering from the virus at five million, he said.
No shortage of hospital beds in Hungary
Asked about Hungary’s number of free hospital beds, Gulyás said there was no serious shortage of beds in any part of the country. Because the British variant of the virus made its way to Hungary from Slovakia, it is the northern part of the country that is seeing a higher caseload and where hospitals have fewer beds available, he said.
The National Hospital Directorate-General is monitoring the status of hospital capacities “on almost a minute-to-minute basis” and is directing ambulances based on its findings, Gulyás said.
Hungary at this point has more than 10,000 free hospital beds, he said, citing expert projections that the number of patients being cared for in hospital was expected to peak at 14,000-15,000. Should the actual number of hospitalisations exceed those numbers, Hungary’s disaster management authority has a strategy for overseeing the care of up to 20,000 patients at a time, he added.
Concerning the distribution of vaccines across the EU, Gulyás said questions of that nature needed to be addressed to Brussels, noting that the EU prohibited the release of the vaccine distribution agreements. Gulyás said he agreed that it was “outrageous that Brussels, which tends to demand transparency, doesn’t believe that this applies to its own agreements”.
No plans on varying degrees of lockdown measures in different parts of Hungary
Meanwhile, the PM’s chief of staff dismissed as “fake news” reports that the government was getting ready to impose varying degrees of lockdown measures across the country.
He criticised a proposal by Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony to set up 30 new vaccination points in the capital as an “cheap political stunt”. Budapest at present has over 700 vaccination points, he noted, adding that this number was enough for mass inoculations.
As regards the government’s vaccination strategy, Gulyás said that because the focus was on saving lives, jabs were primarily being administered to those over the age of 65 rather than teachers whose classes were graduating in the spring.
“The final exams are in May and June, and we’ll have a fairly large number of people vaccinated by then,” he said, adding that hopefully it would be safe to hold the exams by that point.
He said the reason as to why some 4,500 judges and prosecutors had to be vaccinated early was because “certain judicial functions cannot be suspended”.
People with immunity certificates to receive certain exemptions
Gulyás said Hungary’s plan for reopening the country would also contain the list of exemptions those with immunity certificates will be entitled to.
Those who have been vaccinated are entered into an electronic database, based on which they are sent the immunity certificate by mail. The documents do not have an expiration date, he said, noting that it was not yet clear how long immunity lasts after a person has been vaccinated.
Alternatively, a certificate issued to those who have recovered from the disease will be valid for six months following their recovery, while the document based on results from a certified laboratory will be valid for four months after the lab results are issued, he said.
Asked why hospital directors were not free to discuss what happens in Covid-19 units, Gulyás said he was seeing “more doctors and hospital leaders give public statements than ever before”. He added, however, that it would be wrong for TV stations “to make the work in hospitals more difficult with their disaster tourism”.
He said it was not true that hospital patients were being ranked according to their chances of survival, only that they were being “ranked” in terms of whether or not their symptoms required them to be placed on a ventilator.
Gulyás slammed as “lies” claims that general practitioners were given instructions as to which of their patients should be given which vaccine.
Vaccination program ‘well-organized’
Meanwhile, he said that although there were “some difficulties” with vaccinations, “the vaccination program is well-organized, considering that between 50-60,000 and 150,000 people are being vaccinated each day.”
In response to another question, Gulyás said Hungary had yet to receive information about the delivery plan for Johnson and Johnson’s Covid jab.
Asked how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had known as early as last November that there would be difficulties with the procurement of Western vaccines, Gulyás said that though contracts were classified, it had been clear that “the EU was several months late finalizing the agreements”.
Meanwhile, Gulyás said he had no knowledge of any deaths linked to the AstraZeneca jab in Hungary.
He said more than one third of EU member states had expressed interest in the Hungarian government’s vaccine procurement strategy, adding however that Hungary would not acknowledge those talks publicly until those countries did so.
Gulyás noted that the prime ministers of three German federal states had expressed support for pending EU approval of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. The European Medicines Agency is expected to do just that shortly, he said. Meanwhile, he said “most experts” saw the Chinese Sinopharm jab as the most effective against the virus’s variants.
Concerns over European vaccine passport ‘fake debate’
Gulyás called concerns regarding a European “vaccine passport”, which may not accept all types of vaccines, a “fake debate”. Such a document will be issued in two months the earliest, “and by that time, Hungary will have left the worst behind,” he said. “We expect vaccines from Brussels, not passports,” he said.
Asked about the reopening of the cosmetics industry, Gulyás said though beauty salons would not be given permission to open next week, the question of when restrictions could be relaxed depended on the status of the pandemic.
Regarding sporting events held in Hungary during the pandemic, Gulyás said the events were down to a “few” qualifiers for European tournaments and the Olympics, where the risk of infections is “much smaller than in the case of cross-border commuting”.
Meanwhile, he said Favipiravir, a medicine used to treat coronavirus patients some of which has been manufactured in Hungary, is now available in all Hungarian pharmacies.
In response to a question on child sexual abuse allegedly committed by members of the Catholic clergy, Gulyás said the government saw “all acts of paedophilia as abnormal and unacceptable, as well as a grave crime.” “At the same time, it is shameful to highlight the Catholic church in this matter, especially while many in Hungarian public life make statements seeming to excuse paedophiles…” he said.
In the featured photo: PM’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás. Photo by Zoltán Balogh/MTI