Coronavirus in Hungary: "You do not need clarification on the protocol," official tells reporters

2020.03.15. 21:00

Ne maradjon le semmiről!

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At Sunday's press conference of the Hungarian government's coronavirus task force, response team leader Tibor Lakatos informed about the latest Hungarian developments of the coronavirus pandemic, and the newly minted leader of the communications action group and long-time government communicator Zoltán Kovács made his debut at the daily coronavirus press conferences, warning reporters not to be smarter than the experts and accusing the Hungarian Medical Chamber of being politically motivated.

At the beginning of the press conference, Zoltán Kovács (not the same as the author of this article) expressed the government's condolences about the 75-year-old man who was the first victim of COVID-19 in Hungary.

Individuals can do the most to slow down infection rates, Kovács said, which is why upcoming government decisions do and will include "requests that emphasise individual behaviour, responsibility, and discipline." Kovács stressed that senior citizens are the demographic threatened the most by the virus and urged everybody to keep themselves to the precautions already announced in order to protect them.

Kovács confirmed earlier reports claiming that Minister of Interior Affairs Sándor Pintér was tested after meeting a Moroccan Transport Minister Abdelkader Amara who was later diagnosed with the coronavirus. Kovács added that the ministry's employees and employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were also tested, as "the same protocols apply to everybody in Hungary."

Leader of the government's coronavirus response team Tibor Lakatos reiterated that there are 32 confirmed coronavirus cases in Hungary, and even though case numbers have significantly increased, 

according to the coronavirus task force, there are still no hotspots in Hungary, only individual cases and local transmission. 

Most cases are linked to Budapest, Lakatos said, repeating the information released yesterday: some of the newly diagnosed patients had been to Italy, there is a patient who was presumably infected by a relative returning from Austria, and there is a patient that was already an identified contact of a known coronavirus patient.

Lakatos also revealed that one of the new patients contracted the disease in an unknown place and from an unknown spreader.

The border checks have continued, so far, authorities have checked 46.293 people, ordered 907 Hungarian citizens to quarantine themselves at home, and two people were taken to hospitals from the border for observation. People ordered to quarantine themselves are registered into a police database and local police can control and enforce the orders.

Lakatos also announced that the construction of a temporary coronavirus hospital will begin on Monday in Kiskunhalas, some 140 km south of Budapest, 35 km from the southern border.

Questions from the press (mostly unanswered)

Stepping back to the microphone, Kovács explained that the government is working to most effectively facilitate the transition of primary and secondary schools to remote education, more information about that is expected next week, Kovács said that as far as he knows, public media channel M5 will in some way be involved. Several private companies offered assistance and made suggestions, the unification of these ideas is currently ongoing.

One of the reporters asked for clarification on the testing protocol, as Sándor Pintér has had contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19 but was not known to exhibit any symptoms, yet got tested, while medical workers were turned away under similar conditions due to protocol setting symptoms as a prerequisite to testing. Kovács replied the following:

"Please allow me to repeat what I said earlier, with special regard to 444 and the likes: Do not try to be smarter than the epidemiological experts. I ask you to stop looking for sensations, do not try to be smarter than the epidemiological experts who work night and day in accordance with (...) international protocols. (Journalist: So, what is the protocol, are there two conditions...) With all respect to journalists, you are not epidemiological experts. Believe us, the experts know what to do. I categorically deny that protocols were broken in any (...) cases. (Journalist: Can we get some clarification on what the protocol is?) You do not need clarification [on the protocol], the experts need to know the protocol, and they act in accordance with the rules given for each case and location. The best way you can help is by calling attention to what precautions people can take against the virus themselves. You do way more damage by trying to be smarter and trying to find a sensation behind each case."

After the reporter complained that journalists are only allowed a single question each and they get no answers, he was told to pass on the microphone. Kovács later informed that ministry employees generally "chose voluntary isolation, as is customary in this situation," and that the results are expected within 24 hours.

Dodging the next question, Kovács said that the government only releases information about specific cases when necessary or when protocols dictate them to do so and discouraged another journalist from "trying to be smarter than the experts," adding:

"Trust us, believe in us, this is the most you can do aside from obeying the regulations."

The next question was about the Hungarian Medical Chamber's suggestions. The organisation uniting all Hungarian doctors, that warned earlier that the masks available to medical workers do not protect the wearer, recommended the government to order all non-essential stores to close (similarly to Spain, France, and Italy), and ban people from unnecessarily leaving their homes. Kovács interrupted, saying:

"If you allow me, I will answer this question too, non-professionally: The moment some organisation tries to make recommendations or send messages through the press or in open letters, the suspicion that they want to do politics gets stronger. There are experts and there are professional channels for conveying these sorts of recommendations."

Nevertheless, Kovács said that "with special regard to the political connections of the Chamber's president," the government's coronavirus task force had repeatedly examined the Chamber's suggestions, but they consider them to be a "political stunt," and there is "no need for anybody to try to gain political advantages in the current situation." When the reporter told Kovács to forget that the suggestions were made by the Chamber and just say if the government is considering such measures, Kovács replied that the task force is monitoring the situation 24/7 and will take the appropriate decisions when necessary.

Responding to another question about the testing of healthcare employees, Tibor Lakatos clarified that doctors and nurses who had contact with confirmed coronavirus patients are all isolated, typically at the medical institution where they work, confirming that some of the staff at the XVIII. district Jahn Ferenc Hospital in Budapest had been quarantined. Cutting another specific follow-up question short, Kovács said that instead of investigative journalism, the press should focus on educating people on how to keep the required hygiene standards and how to avoid otherwise normal behaviours that are dangerous in the current epidemiological situation.

The coronavirus situation in Hungary

According to the latest update (2:20 PM) of the government coronavirus website,


Hungary reported the first fatality on Sunday. Confirmed cases in the country until now:

  • 4 March - Coronavirus first appeared in Hungary; two Iranian students tested positive after returning from their home country at the end of February, several contacts of one later tested positive as well.
  • 5 March - 69-year-old British man living in Hungary tested positive after returning from Milan on 29 February. His wife and another woman in contact with the man later tested positive.
  • 7 March - A 70-year-old Hungarian man was diagnosed with the virus, initial official information suggested his son infected him, this was later denied. His wife also tested positive two days later.
  • Another Iranian student, a Hungarian woman quarantined in the Szent János hospital, and a Hungarian man who recently returned from Israel tested positive on Thursday.
  • On Friday, three more Hungarian men also tested positive for the disease, bringing total number of cases to nineteen.
  • 11 new cases were announced on Saturday and two more on Sunday morning, but officials stopped releasing information on a case-by-case basis.
  • A patient confirmed on Sunday died upon arrival to the DPC, a 70-year old patient is treated in the ICU, but all other confirmed coronavirus patients are in a satisfactory condition, Lakatos informed at Sunday's press conference.

Hungary declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, and reintroduced border checks on the Austrian and Slovenian border, banned entry from Italy, Iran, China, and South Korea. The entry ban was extended to Israel on FridayUniversities and schools are closed, education will continue remotely. All indoor events above 100 people and outdoor events above 500 are banned. Hospitals in Hungary no longer accept visitors as last Sunday, doctors and medical staff are requested not to travel abroad. On Monday, the government has allocated more than 8 billion Forints (~€24 million) for the coronavirus response. 

The Hungarian Medical Chamber complained that the government does not provide doctors with sufficient protective equipment. On Thursday, it was found that doctors wore no protective gear as they treated an undiagnosed coronavirus patient for days at the Szent János Hospital in Budapest. Earlier, she was denied testing as the DPC ruled out COVID-19 upon initial questioning.

During his interview on public radio on Friday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said "foreigners dragged this disease into the country," and previously, he told European leaders during a teleconference that "there is an obvious link between the coronavirus and illegal immigration." Earlier, the government suspended access to the transit zones on the southern border where asylum-seekers could apply for refugee status.

The first Hungarian citizen to contract Covid-19 was a man who worked on the cruise ship Diamond Princess was confirmed to have the disease at the end of February and was treated in Japan. He reportedly recovered, testing negative on Thursday.

Click here to find all our English coverage about the coronavirus situation in Hungary.

(Cover: Zoltán Kovács. Photo: Index)

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