The head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyás, told an online media briefing that school-leaving exams will start on May 4 and will for the most part comprise written tests only. Only students who require exam scores for their higher education applications will be eligible to sit the exams, Gulyás, said, adding that this concerned 83,000 students. The exam will be organised over a period of around two weeks. No more than ten students should take exams in the same classroom at any one time so that a distance of 1.5 metres can be maintained between them, he said. Oral exams will only be organised for subjects for which written tests are not an option, Gulyás said, adding that a total of 3,178 students will be taking oral exams. However, students also have the option of postponing their exams to the autumn, the PM’s Office chief said. He added, at the same time, that cancelling the exams altogether would have resulted in “a chaotic situation around the higher education application process that we cannot afford”. Concerning school closures, Gulyás said the government is assessing the situation on a daily basis. He noted that the government decided to maintain restrictions introduced in mid-March, adding that “the time has not yet come” to reopen schools.
As regards economic measures, he said the deadline to file tax returns will be extended to Sept. 30. Retailers using online cash tills linked to the tax office will be required to provide an electronic payment option to customers from Jan. 1 next year, Gulyás said, adding, however that there would be no restrictions on the use of cash. Also, the government will lower the VAT rate for home construction at brownfield sites to 5% from 27%, he said. The government has also decided to require companies to pay a monthly health-care contribution for all employees, even ones on unpaid leave, Gulyás said. The cabinet has also approved lowering the social contribution tax to 15.5% from 17.5% as of July 1, he said, adding that the measure would save businesses a combined 160 billion forints.
Gulyás said the government is regrouping hundreds of billions of forints in funding from various ministries and the prime minister’s office to finance the country’s economic protection fund. He said the government looked at the economic data from week to week and kept abreast of the resumption of operations in the economy. Currently the economy is haemorrhaging around 200 billion forints a week and there’s a 2 percentage point decline in GDP each month, he added. Commenting on which kinds of companies are eligible for wage subsidies, he said talks with commerce chambers are ongoing, and, taking into consideration budget constraints, the government is taking various proposals on board, especially if job preservation and job creation are the likely outcome. The government, for example, has agreed to contribute to the earnings of part-time workers, he noted. Wage supplements are costing the state 60-70 billion forints each month, Gulyás said, adding, at the same time, that they would also help save jobs and benefit the economy overall.
In response to a question, he said the government was weighing whether to broaden reductions to employee contributions to more sectors. Gulyás ruled out, however, measures that would lead to people relying on welfare benefits, saying that “that was the path taken by the [Socialist] Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments.”
Meanwhile, Gulyás said the Budapest municipality’s responsibility for problems in the capital’s elderly care homes “cannot be overlooked” but “the goal was to build a partnership with the municipalities, setting party politics aside”. He noted the interior ministry has been instructed to provide the homes in question with 500 coronavirus tests.
Gulyás said epidemic measures may last “for months”, adding that the number of cases after the first wave could rise again. The transmission rate has slowed down and the number of new cases each day is close to peaking, he said, adding however that “at present, unfortunately, we are not about to return to our old everyday routines”. He said the government is following World Health Organisation guidelines concerning coronavirus testing, adding that simultaneous testing and quarantine was the safest approach.
Addressing the issue of the government order to hospitals to vacate a proportion of their beds, he noted that beds may remain empty until they are repurposed to treat a coronavirus patient. It can take up to several weeks to install ventilators, he said, adding that professionals rather than politicians determined how many hospital beds were needed. Disruptions may result in the meantime, but the uptake of beds in Hungary is normally 67-68%, he said.
Gulyás said there were 150-200 infected health-care staff, and the rate of increase was in proportion to wider infections among the general public, and slightly better than what is the case on average internationally.
Asked about the issue of migration, Gulyás underlined the need to boost the protection of the EU’s external borders, arguing that there was no guarantee that Hungary would not find itself in a situation similar to the peak of the 2015 migration crisis once the epidemic subsides.
On another subject, Gulyás said most reports about Hungary in the western European media “make their way there via domestic political channels, using the interpretation of the opposition”.