Orbán: no broad restrictions planned, "the country must function"

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In an interview with state television on Saturday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that the government will seek to avoid imposing broad restrictions in response to the steep rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

While acknowledging the likelihood of continuing increases, Orbán said, "We must first look not at the number of infections but the number of deaths, because now we are defending differently." The Prime Minister said that the recently concluded national consultation on coronavirus defense had demonstrated that Hungarians "do not want the country to shut down" as it did in spring. "The country must function," he added.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

However, virologist at Pécs University of Science Dr. Ferenc Jakab said at an online discussion on Tuesday that data indicate that "deaths are going to rise a lot in the coming weeks...No one should be fooled by the fact that mostly young people are being infected now, and don't believe that older people are safe. Unfortunately, that's not true at all."

Jakab said that Hungary now has the second highest number of cases per capita in Europe after France. "When compared to Europe, the pandemic is brutally raging in Hungary...This is the dark truth," Jakab said. The virologist earlier pointed to the case of Florida, where infections spread widely among young people as deaths remained low. After 4-5 weeks, the virus was passed on to the elderly, and death rates began to rise 2-4 weeks later, he said. 

While the government insists that strict regulations resembling those in spring are not necessary, Orbán warned that fines will be issued to those who fail to follow regulations on the wearing of masks. Such fines could be issued to businesses that do not enforce mask wearing, and after a third infraction the businesses could be closed, Orbán said.

“We don’t want to flex the state's muscles, we just ask for discretion from everyone," he said. "But we also don't want to leave any doubt that if the rules are not followed, they will be forced."

On Wednesday, Orbán announced that in addition to mask requirements on public transportation and in shops, they will also be required in cinemas and theatres, in healthcare centers, and in public offices. Bars will be required to close at 11 p.m., he said, adding that an official price limit of HUF 19,000 (€54) would be placed on PCR tests.

Orbán said that experts believe the second wave of the pandemic will reach its peak in Hungary in December or January.

European countries tighten restrictions on travelers from Hungary as coronavirus cases rise

The number of active coronavirus cases in Hungary rose to 10,280 on Thursday, a new record that is five times higher than at the peak of the first wave in May. Nine coronavirus patients have died in the last 24 hours, the most in a single day since May 18, bringing the total number of deaths to 654.

As of Wednesday, 324 coronavirus patients were being treated in hospitals, 18 of which were on respirators. According to statistics from the National Health Insurance Fund Manager, waiting lists for surgeries in Hungarian hospitals have grown dramatically since the pandemic's second wave hit the country in August. In June, 259 people were waiting for cataract surgery, a number which has since grown to 10,421. Those awaiting thyroid surgery increased from four to 51 in the same period. 

Genetic sampling of waste water shows that the prevalence of the virus is increasing in Székesfehérvár, Budapest, Miskolc, Szolnok, Nyíregyháza, Tatabánya, Salgótarján and Győr, indicating that community spread is in progress in large parts of the country, the National Healthcare Centre announced on Tuesday.

The National Police announced on Tuesday that 34 coronavirus cases are currently confirmed within the police force. Those officers have been removed from duty.

Fotó: Balogh Zoltán/MTI/MTVA

Rising cases of the virus in Hungary have led some European countries to introduce stricter measures on travellers. The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office urged Britains not to travel to Hungary unless absolutely necessary. Those traveling to the UK from Hungary must go into quarantine for two weeks. 

On Wednesday, the German government classified Budapest as a high-risk area, and will now require travelers from the capital to enter quarantine. The restriction could impact the UEFA Supercup football match to be held in Budapest on September 24. Many German fans are expected to attend the match between Bayern Munich and Sevilla, and will be granted an exception to Hungary's strict border restrictions if they present a negative PCR test upon entry to the country and leave within 72 hours.

U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein announces resignation

"It was with a deep sense of pride, as well as some sadness, that I informed President Trump and Foreign Minister Szijjártó that I will be stepping down as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary on November 1." 

U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein announced his resignation in a statement to the U.S. Embassy's website on Tuesday. The 82-year-old served just over two years as Ambassador after arriving in Budapest in the summer of 2018.

During his tenure, Cornstein, a retired jewelry merchant from New York City and longtime friend of President Donald Trump, was noted for his open admiration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and declining to publicly criticize some of the Hungarian government's most controversial policies. Cornstein brokered a meeting in the Oval Office between Trump and Orbán in 2019, where Orbán reportedly urged the President to take a hard stance against Ukraine. That meeting was later the subject of a congressional investigation related to Trump's impeachment.

According to The New York TimesCornstein undermined efforts by diplomats to relay messages to the U.S. government on corruption and democratic backsliding in Hungary. At a 2019 meeting in Budapest between a U.S. congressional delegation and representatives of Hungarian anti-corruption and human rights groups, Cornstein reportedly "hijacked the meeting" and declared that he had seen no evidence of corruption in Hungary.

Orbán and Cornstein at an event in 2019Fotó: Koszticsák Szilárd/MTI/MTVA

The ambassador also sought assurances from Radio Free Europe that the revamped U.S. government-funded news service would not be overly critical of the Hungarian government or engage in excessive investigative journalism. Embassy officials reportedly told a congressional delegation that "Washington’s top man in Hungary acted more like Mr. Orbán’s top man in the Trump administration." 

Cornstein's 2018 attempts to broker a deal between the U.S. and Hungarian governments on the fate of Budapest's Central European University (CEU) ultimately failed, and the American-chartered university was forced to move most of its operations to Vienna, reportedly at Cornstein's urging. Cornstein was later quoted in The Atlantic as saying the fate of CEU would not affect U.S.-Hungarian relations.

In September 2019, several U.S. senators and representatives sent a letter to Cornstein calling on him "to uphold American democratic values and security interests when dealing with the autocratic government of Viktor Orbán."

Szijjártó in Washington, DC: "Trump deserves Nobel Prize"

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó visited Washington, DC on Tuesday to attend a White House signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Szijjártó was the only EU diplomatic leader to receive an invitation from President Donald Trump to attend the event.

Following the ceremony, Szijjártó said that Donald Trump had "brought together such agreements that many people never thought possible. It is obvious that Nobel Prizes are usually awarded for such achievements." (A far-right Norwegian lawmaker earlier nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for his brokering of the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which were never at war.)

Szijjártó also held talks with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who played a role in developing the peace agreement. The minister assured Kushner that Hungary would support US Middle East policy in the European Union. Szijjártó also signed an agreement between Hungary and the largest private space research firm listed on the stock exchange.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó in Washington, DCFotó: Szijjártó Péter/Facebook

While in Washington, Szijjártó met with outgoing Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein. The Foreign Minister also announced that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had accepted his recommendation to appoint Szabolcs Takács as the next Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

Media Council will not renew Klubrádió's frequency license 

A request by commercial radio channel Klubrádió to extend its broadcast license has been rejected by the Hungarian Media Council, it announced on Friday.

The Council referred to "repeated infractions" of the Media Act by the station in justifying its decision. An open tender will be issued for rights to broadcast on the frequency, for which Klubrádió will be able to apply, the Authority wrote. If the station does not apply or is not selected to win the tender, it will be forced to broadcast only online after February 14, 2021.

Klubrádió, considered a liberal talk and news station, broadcasts only in Budapest after the Media Authority stripped its provincial frequencies in 2013. The Authority refused to grant a long-term license that year despite several court rulings in Klubrádió's favor, but finally granted a 7-year license in 2013 following pressure from a grassroots campaign in support of the station.

Speaking to 444, Klubrádió president András Arató said that the Media Council's reference to repeated legal violations "does not hold water. If we had made significant violations then they would have issued us significant fines, but this hasn't happened."

"They could have just said they don't like Klubrádió," Arató said.

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