Hungary closes borders, shops as country braces for surge in new coronavirus cases

Hungary closes borders, shops as country braces for surge in new coronavirus cases
Hungarian policeman screens driver at the Austrian-Hungarian borders
By Tamas Szilagyi in Budapest March 16, 2020

Hungary closed its borders to all foreign travellers as of midnight March 16, following in the footsteps of other countries in the region. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told lawmakers in parliament that only Hungarian nationals will be allowed into the country from Tuesday. Flights in and out of Liszt Ferenc International Airport will be shut down. The border closures will not impact trade flows.

The cabinet has introduced a number of extraordinary measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus since declaring a state of emergency last week. On Monday further restrictions were announced, such as the general ban on all events and the shutdown of recreational establishments, cinemas, cultural institutions and sports events.

The prime minister has called on people to postpone all gatherings except for family events and warned that the elderly were exceptionally vulnerable to the new virus. 

Restaurants, cafes and other businesses will be allowed to remain open only until 3:00 pm except for groceries, food stores and pharmacies.

Orban said the pandemic will have grave economic consequences and warned of a serious wave of unemployment. He stressed the necessity of measures to protect workplaces and asked employers and employees to make personal efforts to preserve jobs. 

The epidemic will require a rewrite of fiscal and economic policy and the budget will have to be redrafted, he added. 

Preserving jobs and strengthening vulnerable business sectors is key to protecting Hungary's economy from the impact of the coronavirus, Hungarian National Bank (MNB) governor Gyorgy Matolcsy said in an op-ed piece in local media. "Workplaces can be maintained by dynamic investment, consumption levels and lending, and these can be supported by budget-funded, targeted workplace protection programmes," he wrote. 

On Monday, the MNB called on commercial banks to impose a moratorium on repayments of loans for corporate clients until the end of the year to mitigate the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. If they fail to do so, the central bank will ask the government to mandate the measure by decree. 

The measure could help companies to overcome the liquidity crunch and support faster recovery. The MNB also said it would apply a uniform 30% collateral haircut to boost banking sector lending potential.

Coronavirus epidemic to enter new phase

Orban said he expected the epidemic in Hungary to enter a new phase in the next few days when groups of people could become infected rather than isolated cases. 

As long as there is no vaccine, "the only chance" is to slow down the spread of the virus, he said. This was backed up by chief medical officer Cecília Muller.

The cases are so far are either individual ones or within smaller communities but the epidemic is expected to appear in clusters, she added. 

So far 39 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus, 137 people are under observation in hospitals and some 1,000 are in self-isolation. 

Opposition parties have called for mass screenings to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

On Monday, the government information website focusing on news on the coronavirus outbreak was hit by a DoS attack. The National Cybersecurity Institute is investigating the source of the attack.