Hungary loosens Covid-19 rules for millions with ‘immunity cards’

Country has world's highest coronavirus death rate despite swift vaccine rollout

Hungary has loosened coronavirus restrictions for up to four million of its residents who have received at least one vaccine dose, as it pursues an ambitious inoculation strategy to fight the highest rate of Covid-19 deaths in the world.

The country of 10 million people is the only EU state to use not only western-made vaccines but also Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm, which have not been approved by the bloc's drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The populist government of prime minister Viktor Orban announced that from Saturday, people with a state-issued "immunity card" could start using indoor areas of bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, gyms, museums and other venues; those without are still barred, or restricted to eating and drinking on outdoor terraces.

“In the past, we defended ourselves by closing, thereby slowing the spread of the virus. But now we are on the attack,” Mr Orban said on Friday. “The vaccine is like a bulletproof vest. The virus bounces off of it.”

Mr Orban credits his government's decision to buy Sputnik and Sinopharm for the speed of its vaccination programme, which has administered doses to a larger proportion of its population than any EU state except Malta.

Critics note that Mr Orban, who is at odds with Brussels over a host of rule-of-law issues, plays down Hungary's purchase of millions of doses of EU- and US-made vaccines, even as polls show they are preferred by most Hungarians: the national vaccine sign-up system crashed and long queues formed at some clinics on Friday, when the public was allowed to register for a Pfizer shot for the first time.

Third wave

Mr Orban's opponents also accuse his government of badly mishandling a severe third wave of the pandemic that has battered central and eastern Europe; according to Our World in Data, eight of the 10 countries with the worst per capita coronavirus death rates are located in the region: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Some Hungarians complain that the two-speed reopening is unfair to those who are still waiting for vaccination or who cannot or prefer not be inoculated, and others say they are yet to receive the state-issued card that allows them to prove their vaccination status or recovery from the virus.

Others are concerned that any EU-wide "vaccine passport" scheme may recognise only vaccines approved by the EMA; in response, Mr Orban's government is negotiating deals on mutual recognition of vaccine certificates, and has announced agreement with Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bahrain.

Hungary reported 1,593 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, taking its total to 782,892, of which 27,802 have proven fatal. According to Our World in Data, Hungary has registered 2,867 Covid-19 deaths per million people, compared with 994 in Ireland and 1,882 in Britain.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe