Covid-19 cases are on the rise again in Hungary. Despite worsening figures, the country still has one of the least stringent sets of measures in Europe. The prime minister has recently taken the firm stance that no restrictions, only vaccinations are needed. However, Viktor Orbán seems to be slightly changing his position.
The fourth wave of the coronavirus outbreak has clearly started in Hungary, with more than 500 daily new cases of the virus recorded just in the past few days. The number of patients requiring hospital care and even ICU admissions have also increased sharply.
Of course, the worsening covid figures are not exclusive to Hungary, as the virus is also spreading in other European countries as well. However, a big difference is that the Hungarian government, unlike most European ones, has still not made the decision to reintroduce any restrictions since lifting the lockdown measures in the summer.
Hungary among least stringent countries
In fact, according to the data of Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, a project that records the strictness of government policies via the so-called ’stringency index,’ Hungary is one of the most lenient countries in Europe when it comes to restrictions. Practically almost no restrictions have been in place since July in the country. The index itself is a composite measure of nine of the response metrics (e.g. school closures, workplace closures, travel bans), with a value ranging from 1-100 (100 being the strictest). The situation in Hungary (with an index value of 27.78) is particularly interesting because neighboring Austria has one of the highest index values on the continent (60.19).
As a result of the significant increase in covid cases of recent weeks in Austria, followed by with some delay an increase in the number of hospitalizations, the authorities have reintroduced a number of measures.
For most of the public indoor and some outdoor spaces (hotels, restaurants, events etc.), people need to show either a negative COVID test, proof of vaccination, or verification of recovery. FFP2 masks are also required for everyone on public transport, and in essential businesses such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and petrol stations.
The measures introduced by Austria has added relevance because PM Viktor Orbán had said in a radio interview last April that he sees the neighboring country as a ’virus laboratory’ for Hungary, and is trying to learn from the epidemiological measures being introduced there. Last autumn, the restrictions introduced in Hungary were very similar to those in Austria.
A valid covid pass is currently required not just in Austria but in most European countries as well. Slovenia, Serbia, Romania, and Croatia, for example, are already using these certificates extensively. A growing number of German states are also authorizing the banning of people from social life, hospitality, culture and sport, who have not been administered the vaccine against the virus.
Gradual control of the epidemic needed
Many Hungarian experts also believe several of the past restrictions should have been reintroduced in Hungary a long time ago.
In a recent interview, health expert, Zsombor Kunetz, emphasized that the spread of the infection is clearly accelerating, and measures introduced in stages would be necessary to halt the spread of the fourth wave.
Kunetz said that even getting an accurate picture of the situation is impossible because of the extremely low number of tests.
According to the expert, the mayor of Budapest should have also introduced mask mandates on public transport, for example. “Public transport is not ideal for maintaining distance, and masks should also be worn in congested spaces,” said Kunetz.
Orbán: Immunity certificates to play a role
However, the government’s position until now has been that vaccination is the only solution to the problem and that restrictions are not necessary. Orbán has repeatedly said that mandatory wearing of masks is not “the right solution” either.
The prime minister, however, slightly refined his position. In a recent radio interview, Orbán said any further lockdowns due to covid would be unfair to the 6 million people who had been vaccinated, but if any restrictions were to be introduced, Hungary’s immunity certificate would play a role. The PM’s words could suggest that the government is already preparing to introduce certain restrictions.
Featured photo illustration by Márton Mónus/MTI