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Government official: Coronavirus in Hungary expected to peak in June or July

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2020.03.26. 13:56

Minister of the Prime Minister's Office Gergely Gulyás held his weekly press conference on Thursday informing the press about the latest decisions made at the government's cabinet meeting. For the first time, the presser was held online with no reporters present because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Most questions concerned the government's Coronavirus Bill and the economic aspects of the pandemic, but the Minister and the government spokesperson Alexandra Szentkirályi touched upon a number of other topics too:

  • According to experts, the coronavirus epidemic is expected to peak in Hungary in June or July, Gulyás said, adding that nothing is certain and calculations are constantly ongoing.
  • Three deputies are at the ready to fill in for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in case he contracts COVID-19, however, Gulyás said "thank God this is not a danger right now," adding that Interior Minister Sándor Pintér tested negative for a second time after he met with an infected foreign dignitary last week.  
  • The government does not plan to restrict data consumption, the Hungarian Internet network is outstanding and should cope with the increased traffic.
  • A lockdown will be implemented as soon as it becomes justified, adding that only the government can order that, which is why the local lockdowns introduced by mayors of Sződliget and Polgár will be reviewed.
  • At this moment, it does not seem necessary to postpone high school final exams, as education continued remotely despite the school closures.
  • There are no financial limits to the coronavirus response efforts, the government decides about spending based on recommendations of the Coronavirus Task Force.
  • László B. Nagy, an MP of Fidesz attended Monday's session in Parliament despite being under home quarantine for having had contact with a confirmed patient, raising concerns that he could have dragged the virus into the National Assembly. Gulyás said that he kept a 2-3 metre distance from other lawmakers and wore a mask, and he contributed to Fidesz's supermajority - "it was a responsible decision," Gulyás assessed.

The Coronavirus Bill and the expiring extraordinary measures

As the opposition in the Hungarian Parliament blocked the accelerated procedure of the Coronavirus Bill that would have authorised the government to indefinitely extend the effect of the decrees issued during the state of emergency declared over the coronavirus two weeks ago, and the government had not submitted an alternative bill to reinforce their decrees, some of the government measures against the epidemic would soon be expiring, and the big question was how this situation could be abridged.

It would indeed be constitutionally problematic if the government reissued the same extraordinary decrees,

- Gulyás announced, explaining that the government had to look for options to extend the measures that would be expiring over the coming days. First, the government is asking controlling bodies of universities and public education institutes to order a recess for Monday and Tuesday, as the corresponding decree would be expiring next week. The government also instructed the competent ministers to take the necessary steps to maintain the closure of the Schengen borders and extend the extraordinary judicial vacation in line with the expiring decrees. He said the reason the government wants to prepare for a situation when Parliament cannot convene is that it would take months of preparation to prepare the legislative body for online sessions.

The minister also said that the Ministry of Justice worked "day and night" to prepare the bill, but it was only ready by last Thursday, which is why Minister of Justice Judit Varga only submitted it to Parliament on Friday, thus making an accelerated legislative procedure necessary. Read more about what the Coronavirus Bill is, why the opposition blocked its hastened adoption, and how the indefinite authorisation of the government might affect Hungarian constitutional order here:

In response to criticism of the bill from Secretary-General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić, who warned that "an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed", Gulyás said that this is a political attack against the Hungarian government which was launched at a time when cooperation would be most necessary. Earlier, Viktor Orbán also addressed the concerns of the CoE in a letter saying: "If you are not able to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from hindering our defensive efforts."

The OSCE and the European Parliament's LIBE committee have also voiced similar worries. Gulyás suggested EU politicians to "put this hobby of theirs aside for a bit" and stop fretting over Hungary.

Case numbers to spike in coming days

Gulyás said that the number of confirmed cases in Hungary is expected to shoot up in coming days, but according to the Minister, the medical system is prepared:

2600 ventilators are available and the government is doing everything to purchase and acquire more equipment.

Mass infection is imminent, he added, assessing that Hungary had taken preventive steps much earlier than neighbouring countries, which is why the current number of cases is comparatively low - although even Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had said that the number of confirmed cases is not to be completely trusted, as there could be way more people carrying the virus without being diagnosed.

The government had spent more than 100 billion Forints (~€280 million) on the coronavirus response so far, but there is more money available for this purpose in the state budget, Gulyás informed. He also said that as Hungary is amongst the most proficient countries when it comes to withdrawing EU funds, opening these funds to cover costs of the coronavirus response is not as helpful to the country as for others, and said that at the videoconference of EU leaders today, the Hungarian government will initiate lifting tariffs on protective gear imported into the EU.

"We want to help everybody, but as of yet, we cannot."

The government is planning to take measures to prevent the worst economic effects of the pandemic beyond the first and the second relief package announced by the Prime Minister, however, for now, those are the steps that the government could immediately take. They are planning to relieve further business sectors of certain employment costs.

Responding to Index's question, Gulyás said that they do not yet have the exact number of registered job seekers in Hungary, but it could be around 30 or 40 thousand in March, and the government expects mass unemployment in April and May. Responding to a question if the government plans to expand unemployment benefits, Gulyás said that the goal is to keep everybody working and make sure that even those losing their livelihoods during the pandemic would be able to find jobs within three months. 

Gulyás said that state incomes suffer a loss of 200 billion Forints (~€560 million) every week.

Cover: Screenshot of the online government press conference on 26 March 2020.

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