Restrictions Tightened Against Fast-spreading Variant

Government

The Hungarian government decided to close non-essential businesses between March 8 and 22 to curb the rapidly spreading Kent variant of the coronavirus, Gergely Gulyás, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, announced at a weekly press briefing on March 4, reported state news agency MTI.

According to Gulyás, supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol stations were to remain open. The exceptions were later extended to include agricultural and industrial suppliers, as well as shops that sell pet food and livestock feed, gardening stores, optician’s shops, national tobacco shops and newspaper sellers.

Wage support and payroll tax relief which had up to now been available only to hotels and catering companies is to be extended to all businesses required to close because of the restrictions, he added. The government also decided to close kindergartens and primary schools until April 7, the end of the Easter break, he added.

These added restrictions have supplemented the existing ones, which the government had decided to extend at the end of February to March 15. At that point, in light of the threat from the new COVID-19 variant, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán warned that the most difficult two weeks of the pandemic were ahead of us. He urged Hungarians to comply with rules intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to register for vaccination.

On March 5, Orbán told Kossuth Rádió that the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals could reach 15,000-20,000. The next day Orbán estimated that 2.5 million citizens could be vaccinated by the beginning of April, a tally that could reach 4.5 million by May. That weekend, the number of people vaccinated at least once crossed the one million threshold, but Orbán urged citizens to continue to register for vaccination.

Leaders go Chinese

For his part, Orbán received his first dose of vaccine on February 28. Notably, it was the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, which had entered the country vaccine mix earlier that week. No doubt the Prime Minister chose the Sinopharm vaccine to set an example and project his confidence that the Chinese vaccine was just as effective and safe as Western vaccines.

Hungarian President János Áder also received his first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine on February 26. Interestingly, Hungary is one of only two countries in the world that are utilizing five different vaccines, the other being the United Arab Emirates.

Currently, China’s Sinopharm vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine account for just over 40% of the vaccines delivered to Hungary thus far, according to the government’s official coronavirus website koronavirus.gov.hu. Some 58% are the vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

At the end of February, the government said it expected that more than 15 million people could be vaccinated by the end of the year, according to business daily Világgazdaság (the country has a population of 9.7 million, according to the Central Statistical Office).

In the longer term, Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics announced that Hungary would have its own National Coronavirus Vaccine Plant by the end of 2022, according to conservative daily Magyar Nemzet. On March 9, Parliamentary State Secretary Csaba Dömötör, of the Prime Minister’s Office, told TV news channel M1 that three million people had registered for vaccination so far.

With mass vaccination underway, anticipation for a post-COVID environment is heightening. Director of Tourism at the Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) Szabolcs Juhász said that, based on the intensity of reservations being made, it was likely there would be a successful summer tourism season. Minister of Finance Mihály Varga also noted that, if enough people are vaccinated to lift pandemic restriction by Easter, the economy could grow by 4-4.5% this year.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of  March 12, 2021.

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