**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.
The Hungarian government spent about €850 million on ordering more than 16,000 ventilators despite expert analysis predicting that a maximum 8,000 would be needed in the worst-case scenario, news portal 444.hu reported.
The government justified the move by saying that it wanted to make sure at least 10,000 machines arrived due to the very competitive market.
Meanwhile, following the Council of the EU’s decision on 30 June to have a ‘safe travel list’ including 15 third countries from 1 July, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said on Thursday (2 July) that “with the exception of Serbia, we cannot yet fulfil the Union’s request to admit citizens from countries outside the EU, because that would be contrary to the health interests of the Hungarian people.”
As of Tuesday (30 June), the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 4,210, 589 deaths and 2,885 recoveries. Budapest remains the most heavily affected region with close to 2,000 confirmed infections.
European, Taiwanese and American sources have simultaneously brought the novel coronavirus to Hungarian soil, according to a study from the University of Pécs, which was based on a representative sample of the virus’ presence in the country.
The Hungarian parliament on 30 March passed a law empowering the government to rule by decree indefinitely during the COVID-19 emergency.
Under the law, spreading “false fact or true facts distorted in a way” to “impede or thwart” the effectiveness of defence measures is punishable by up to five years of imprisonment.
The law also increased penalties for people breaking quarantine ordered by authorities to up to eight years if such behaviour causes death and up to five years if committed in groups.
On 16 June, the parliament passed a legislation that called on the government to rescind the state of emergency, thus ending the controversial powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislature also approved a separate bill on “transitional arrangements,” which several prominent NGOs warned in a joint statement is an “optical illusion” leaving the authorities with enhanced powers.
The Coronavirus law timeline:
- When the draft law was submitted, critics said it is a ‘blank cheque’ to Orbán and alarmed observers questioned whether Hungary is about to become a dictatorship
- The law passed on 30 March with the entire opposition voting against the bill
- After initially forgetting to mention Hungary by name, Commission President Von der Leyen said she is ‘concerned’ over Hungary virus emergency law
- European Parliament President Sassoli asked the Commission to assess the law’s compliance with the EU treaties
- 13 EU countries said they are ‘deeply concerned’ about democracy
- In response, PM Orbán contacted leading EPP figures appealing for support, later saying that he has “no time” for scathing criticism by EU allies.
- Meanwhile Romania’s largest EPP party PNL did not join the call of 13 centre-right leaders to expel Fidesz party from conservative political family fearing a backlash at the Romanian-Hungarian border, EURACTIV.com has learnt.
- Austria, however, still preferred to dialogue with Hungary, the country’s EU minister, Karoline Edtstadler, told EURACTIV Germany.
- The EU must swiftly propose and adopt sanctions against the latest ‘democratic backsliding’ by the Hungarian government, said leading European politicians and leaders
- The call to act was echoed by MEPs, journalists, academics and civiI society organisations
- The European Parliament passed a resolution on 17 April describing the recent Hungarian move as “totally incompatible with European values”
- PM Orbán has sent a letter to the party leaders of EPP, accusing both political opponents and allies of spreading fake news about the coronavirus law
- After Vice President Jourová said there are no reasons to start infringement procedures “yet,” Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga asked “Can you take no for an answer?”
- In response to European Parliament President Sassoli’s invitation to a debate on Hungary in Brussels, Orbán said “the fight against the epidemic consumes all my energy and strength.”
- During a visit to Belgrade, Orbán announced that his government is prepared to hand back emergency powers in May.
The ‘state of danger’ (or state of emergency) will probably end after 16 June, with theatres, cinemas, museums and bathhouses allowed to open, said the minister of the prime minister’s office, Gergely Gulyás.
On 26 May, the Hungarian government submitted a bill to parliament asking for the decision to end the state of emergency, Justice Minister Judit Varga wrote on Facebook. Once adopted, the state of emergency will end as of 20 June.
When it comes to travel, Hungary first started reopening borders in May. Its government was one of the first to open an external border when all crossings were allowed between Hungary and Serbia. Since then, Hungary opened its Schengen borders for truck drivers on 9 June, with so far only citizens of Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia may enter the country. Travellers coming from those seven countries do not need to go into quarantine, others must.
The movement restrictions were lifted in Budapest on 18 May, two weeks after the government relaxed the measures outside of the capital.
Shops, beaches, as well as the open-air areas of cafes and restaurants were allowed to reopen starting on 4 May.
“We may try to restart life in Hungary, but we must proceed gradually and according to a strict schedule,” announced Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on 29 April, declaring the “defence stage” as being over.
Wearing masks on public transports and in shops will now become mandatory, while the 1.5m social distancing rule will continue to apply.
Meanwhile, the lifting of restrictions for areas outside Budapest has caused a great deal of confusion, particularly for Hungarians with summer homes outside the capital who considered leaving the city for the countryside as politicians sent mixed messages.
Government spokesperson Alexandra Szenkirályi said on Saturday (2 May) that “residents of Budapest and Pest county going to the countryside and having a “recreational walk,” or especially sleeping there, does not fall within [the relaxation].”
However, on 7 May, the minister of the prime minister’s office, Gergely Gulyás, said “everyone can visit their real estate” outside Budapest, as long as they follow the measures, adding that “the government had taken a clear position.”
Hungary declared a national state of emergency on 11 March, ordering the shutting of universities, and banning large gatherings.
After initially claiming that there is no reason to close down schools, on 13 March Orbán announced that primary and secondary education institutions will close from Monday (16 March) and continue education teaching online.
“We will close Hungary’s borders to passenger travel,” said PM Viktor Orbán addressing the parliament’s plenary on 16 March, adding that only Hungarian citizens will be able to cross into the country from midnight that day.
The government announced the imposition of a curfew starting on 28 March.
Leaving residences became only allowed for work and broadly defined basic needs, including groceries, going to drugstores, pharmacies, the hairdresser, using health services, veterinary visits, outdoor walks and running.
Those above 65 could only visit groceries stores, markets and pharmacies from 9-12 am, citizens below that age are only allowed in these establishments outside of these hours.
EPP ‘fake news’ and ‘weak’ EU
After thirteen of Europe’s centre-right political leaders asked Donald Tusk, the EPP president, to expel Orbán’s Fidesz party from its ranks in April, the PM sent a letter to the member party presidents of the political family, in which he accuses his political opponents and allies alike of spreading fake news about the Hungarian coronavirus law.
On 8 May Orbán commented on the letter, saying that it “is not a personal matter, but the honour of the homeland.”
“We need to make it clear that you can’t try to pick a fight with Hungarians without consequences, especially not when they are in trouble. We don’t forget, we remember it, and we will settle our accounts.
When asked about the unity in the EPP, Orbán said that “while there are arguments like in any family, we should never forget that we still belong to one place” and as long as “it is possible we should work towards keeping the family together.”
“If they cannot help because they cannot, at least do not hinder the Hungarians in their defence. We want a strong Europe, but this alliance has its weaknesses, which is also evident during the epidemic,” said Orbán on 27 March.
“We received help from China and the Turkic Council. This is the situation at the moment. Despite this, we remain EU members. This is our home, but we must see that this is not where help is coming from now,” he added.
National examinations amid COVID-19 peak
Despite PM Orbán announcing on 19 April that the peak in coronavirus cases is expected to be reached on the 3 May, according to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, starting from 4 May, the Hungarian government pressed ahead with its plans to hold high school examinations in-person for which a maximum of ten students were allowed in one room at a time.
Though students choosing to postpone their exams to fall were not be penalised, they will not be able to begin tertiary education as national exam scores are needed for admission.
On 8 May, Orbán described the examination as a success because only 3% of the students decided not to take the examinations, adding that “there are always discordant voices,” referring to “a number of teachers and MPs who said it cannot be done, it’s dangerous, we mustn’t.”
Both of the country’s biggest teachers’ unions voiced concerns about the exams.
On the digitisation of primary education during the lockdown, the PM said that “such a fast transition with so few hitches I did not experience anywhere in Europe.”
‘Create as many jobs as the virus destroys:’ economic measures
As the country slowly restarts life, PM Viktor Orbán warned on 8 May that the -5.6% fall in industrial production in March “will get worse” but the “brutal” data of April should get better in May and June.
On 8 May, Orbán said he ordered the interior and finance ministers to double the number of public employed to 200,000 with a view to increase it further if it’s not enough, keeping the government’s focus on job creation.
The Hungarian Development Bank has announced a €4.2 billion support package for businesses in the form of loans, guarantees and equity injection on 22 April.
“The goal is to create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus,” said Orbán on 6 April.
The government plans to reallocate 18-20 % of GDP, including programmes launched by the Central Bank and will increase the country’s budget deficit from 1% to 2.7% this year.
The authorities also announced what is being called the “Hungarian Kurzarbeit” program, with the government agreeing to pay 70% of the net salary of those working decreased hours.
As of 4 June, 11,140 companies have applied for the Hungarian short-time work scheme support for 145,000 employees, with the average support provided per worker at €470.
Healthcare workers have received a one-time cash payment of gross €1,370.
Other measures aimed at sustaining the economy announced mid-March, include a moratorium on principal and interest payments until the end of the year for all households and enterprises.
The PM said the government’s hope is that measures will protect jobs “because we learned in the past 10 years that if there is work, there is everything.”
Evictions and seizures are also suspended until after the end of the pandemic, and maternity benefits that end during the period are to be prolonged.