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From Lenient to Strict – How the Gov’t’s Position Changed on Restrictions

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.11.12.

Even though less than two weeks ago, Prime Minister Orbán said that no further tightening of the restrictions was needed, due to the worsening epidemic situation, the government has announced extremely strict new measures since last week. Summary.

In September, the spread of the novel coronavirus started to accelerate in Hungary, which was evident not only by the increased number of cases but also by the significant change in the number of hospital admissions and fatalities.

During the first half of the month the number of active cases was on a rapid rise, but the number of coronavirus-related deaths (at around 1 daily) has not yet started to increase.

At the time, Viktor Orbán said that Hungary is “awaiting the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic in full armor.” He also said that from now on Hungary’s defense will be different than it was during the spring, as the government’s priority had been to “buy time to assess the enemy and prepare the healthcare sector,” while this time “people clearly want to see Hungary functioning.”

About a week later, the Prime Minister warned that the number of new infections was expected to further increase. He noted, however, that during the second wave it was the number of deaths rather than new infections that should be focused on.

Orbán also expressed that he was not as worried as during the first wave of the epidemic, because “we now know exactly what we are facing” and the country has all the equipment needed to defend against the virus.

In an interview at the end of that month, Orbán tried to calm everyone by outlining that enough doctors, nurses, and necessary equipment were at hand, while also stating that Hungary would procure a vaccine which would be made available to all Hungarians.

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In October, the trend seen in the previous month was even more obvious than before, and by the end of the month, Hungary became one of the worst-performing countries in Europe in the number of Covid fatalities per population.

At the beginning of October with around 15 daily new Covid deaths in Hungary, Orbán was already a lot less optimistic and said he expected the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic to last longer and be more difficult than the first one.

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In a radio interview, he noted that at the time the public should not expect any further restrictions on day-to-day life and that mathematicians had estimated, at the severe end of the scale, that Hungary may contend with 200,000 coronavirus infections, with 16,000 requiring hospitalization and 800 to 1,000 patients on ventilators.

In a radio interview on October 30th, the Prime Minister continued to emphasize that he believes the key is in complying with the existing rules rather than establishing new ones. Orbán also said that Hungary’s healthcare system was capable of bearing the burdens caused by the epidemic.

“We have enough hospital beds, medicine, ventilators, doctors, and nurses even if they have to be transferred.”

Hungary has the third largest reserve of hospital beds in Europe after Germany and Austria and the largest reserve of ventilators, he said.

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Hungarian experts raise the alarm

At the same time, for weeks, many healthcare experts were trying to warn that the government’s measures in place were insufficient. Some of them even went as far as to say that the epidemic was spreading uncontrollably in Hungary.

The government’s lack of willingness to increase testing capacities, introduce protective measures in schools, order remote working where possible, and order sporting events to be played behind closed doors, was heavily criticized.

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But Orbán was reluctant to introduce any new meaningful restrictions until last week.

The government finally makes a move

The first time the government committed itself to the introduction of new restrictions was at the very end of October, the time the daily coronavirus related number of deaths jumped above 100.

As a first step, extended face-mask requirements were introduced in restaurants and entertainment venues.

Many were surprised after hearing about the new, quite lenient restriction, especially since all the neighboring countries have already introduced numerous more serious measures including curfews, shop and service closures, and a strict ban on gatherings.

The real turning point in the Orbán government’s assessment of the situation came in the first half of last week when the Prime Minister announced that the epidemic was gaining momentum and should this trend hold, Hungary’s hospitals will be close to exhausting their capacities by mid-December.

As a result, the state of emergency was reintroduced, a curfew between midnight and 5 am, sporting events, cinemas, and theaters were ordered to restrict audiences to using every third seat, and face masks became mandatory.

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On Monday, Orbán announced even stricter restrictions with an extended curfew, prohibiting all public and almost all private gatherings, and the closure of all restaurants. The very next day he announced that face masks will be made mandatory in all public spaces.

According to Orbán, tools and equipment are at hand, and “we have doctors too, only not enough.”

In an interview on Tuesday, PM Orbán said, citing estimates by scientists, that taking into account the number of doctors and nurses in the country, there was a 50 percent chance that Hungary would be able to continue coping with the epidemic if the current rate of new cases continues. “This is too big a risk, so we had to introduce new restrictions,” he added

A day later, on Wednesday, he was much more optimistic. Orbán said that now, “with restrictions, that chance is 99.99 percent.”

Meanwhile, PM Orbán has repeatedly said that the vaccine is the solution to the crisis which is “now in sight.” They expect the first vaccine, most likely the one under development by Russia, by December.

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At this point, we can only hope the extreme restrictions will work, and the healthcare system doesn’t reach its capacity. According to PMO Head Gergely Gulyás, it will take one or two weeks until the new measures will affect the epidemic, while Human Resources Minister Miklós Kásler, originally an oncologist, estimated 4-6 weeks.

Featured photo by Vivien Cher Benko/PM’s Press Office/MTI 


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