Hungary to decide on second phase of reopening after hitting 3 million vaccinations goal

April 08. 2021. – 05:14 PM

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On Thursday, Gergely Gulyás, the Hungarian Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, announced at the weekly government press conference that the Hungarian government will decide about the second phase of its gradual reopening plan after three million people receive the first dose of the vaccine against Covid-19, which may happen in the following days. The first restrictions were lifted this Wednesday after the country hit the 2.5 million vaccinations goal the previous day. The Hungarian Medical Chamber warned that the reopening is premature, as the healthcare system's workload is still exceedingly high, and "no medical or epidemiological reasons warrant the easing of the preventive measures."

Gulyás revealed that currently, there are little under four million people registered for the vaccine. The government hopes that the number of registrations will continue to grow and that they will be able to vaccinate four million people by the end of this month.

As of this morning, 2 608 084 people have received the first dose of the vaccine and 1 077 947 have been fully vaccinated. Earlier, the Hungarian government set 2.5 million first vaccinations as the condition for the gradual reopening. The country reached this goal on Tuesday afternoon, and soon after, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced the relaxation of the preventive measures in his video message, and as of Wednesday, the government implemented the following changes:

  • The curfew starts at 10:00 PM instead of 8:00 PM, and it lasts until 5:00 AM;
  • Shops can be open until 9:00 PM;
  • Non-essential stores can reopen;
  • Stores can only allow one customer for every 10 square meters of retail space,
  • Service providers (such as hairdressers, beauty salons, etc.) can also reopen.

As it currently stands, the remaining measures such as the mask mandate, the curfew, increased border control (including the Schengen borders), the event ban, remote learning, and the closure of theatres, cinemas, gyms, and hotels are to remain in place until 19 April. Restaurants and bars will also continue to operate on the same rules as before: only takeaways and deliveries are allowed.

High death toll, hospitals under pressure

The opening on Wednesday coincided with the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic; the government's official coronavirus website reported that 311 coronavirus-related deaths were registered in the previous 24 hours. Later in the day, Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller told the press that the excessive number was due to administrative delays over the Easter long weekend, although there was no significant change the following day either: On Thursday morning, the website reported 272 new fatalities, bringing the total death toll to 22 098. In international comparison, that places Hungary at number three in total deaths relative to population, right after the Czech Republic and San Marino.

Although we saw a major dip in the number of new cases over the past few days, that could also be attributed to the lull in testing over the long weekend, as wastewater surveillance data released by the National Public Health Centre indicates that in most places, the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA still stagnates at increased levels. The number of active cases has been on the rise ever since mid-February, currently being 256 044.

Hospitals are under tremendous pressure as well: Admittances due to Covid-19 infections surpassed 10 000 mid-March, and after peaking on 30 March at 12 553, there are still 11 663 people being treated in hospitals, and 1337 people are on ventilators.

You can find our detailed charts on the Hungarian coronavirus situation at the bottom of this article.

Why the 2.5 million?

This number has been circulating in the public discourse ever since Orbán told public media sometime in February that by Easter, all who registered for the vaccine would get their jabs – this was around 2.5 million people at that time. Mid-March, roughly two weeks after the government tightened the restrictions, the PM specified that they would only ease these measures when they reach this goal. Speaking to state news channel M1 last Wednesday, Orbán also revealed why:

"The 2.5 million is a moral obligation. We mustn't reopen until the most endangered people get their vaccines, that means those above 65."

He added that many people suggest an even stricter lockdown while others want to reopen immediately – these positions can be brought closer together by vaccinating as many people as possible.

Restrictions no longer work, vaccines are the only solution, he elaborated on state radio Kossuth the following Friday, arguing that the British variant of the virus is different: "Restrictions may slow the spread, but will no longer stop it, it would eventually knock on everyone's door." The PM talked about the possibility of granting certain exceptions to the vaccinated, which may have an incentivizing effect; however, he stressed that the vaccines could not be made mandatory.

Schools to open on 19 April

What already seems to be set in stone concerning the second phase of the reopening is that remote learning in elementary and secondary schools is set to finish on 19 April, as specified by the decree triggering the current reopening. As many government officials have emphasized, this can only happen once all school staff who registered for the vaccine get their jabs. At Thursday's press conference, Gulyás said teachers receive Pfizer vaccines which provide 80% immunity after the first dose.

However, teachers are worried that the date set for schools to reopen may be too early: although 66 685 of them have received their first dose during the first round of vaccinations between 1-3 April, a further 100 000 teachers are to get their jabs only by the upcoming Sunday, and it is not sure that the one-week timeframe would be enough for even partial immunization.

Hungarian Medical Chamber says reopening is premature

In a statement published on Wednesday, the Hungarian Medical Chamber stated that the relaxation of the preventive measures introduced on 8 March is too early and has ”no medical or epidemiological reasons." They warn that a reassuringly high level of immunity only develops seven days after the second dose of the vaccine, and the partial immunity combined with the false sense of security given by the first dose may prove dangerous.

"We maintain that instead of the number of vaccinations, the decision to reopen should depend on the improvement of epidemiological statistics and the reduction of the healthcare system's workload."

The Medical Chamber welcomes the decision to allow stores to stay open longer, as it helps ease overcrowding in such places, but they think it's too early to reopen services and schools.

The Medical Chamber is asking citizens not to change their habits, only go shopping if absolutely necessary, maintain social distancing, keep wearing masks, and abstain from visiting relatives and friends, as the third wave of Covid-19 is not over yet, as they write: "Our current knowledge suggests that we have reached a plateau at best," the death toll is at record highs, more and more patients are admitted to hospitals, and the number of people requiring ventilators stagnates at a high level.