Hungary shuts secondary schools, tightens COVID-19 curbs in policy shift

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will shut secondary schools and tighten coronavirus curbs from midnight Tuesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, in a shift away from his policy of avoiding tough restrictions to protect the economy.

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for day two of an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium October 16, 2020. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

The premier, who is facing elections in 2022, had resisted calls from doctors and opposition politicians for more shutdowns as the second wave of the pandemic hit.

But after a meeting of the government’s coronavirus task force on Monday, Orban said Hungary would also close universities and restaurants, limit gatherings, hold sports events behind closed doors and extend a night-time curfew.

“If coronavirus infections rise at the current pace ... Hungarian hospitals will not be able to cope with the burden,” Orban said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

The government reported 5,162 new cases and 55 new deaths on Monday, bringing the total to 114,778 infections and 2,493 fatalities.

Hospitals have already had to reschedule operations to cope with an influx of patients. Hungary has one of the highest hospitalisation rates from the coronavirus, according to the European Centre for Disease Control.

The curfew, which currently starts at midnight, will run from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Orban said. Hotels can receive only business travellers, no tourists.

Attendance at family events will be limited to 10 people and funerals to 50 people. Theatres, cinemas and fitness facilities will be closed.

Primary schools and nurseries will continue to operate normally, but teachers and healthcare workers will have to be tested every week, Orban said.

The new measures will be imposed for 30 days, but can be extended if necessary, Orban said. Parliament, where Orban’s party has a two-thirds majority, is due to vote on the curbs on Tuesday.

The restrictions are “necessary but late,” the leader of the opposition party Momentum, Andras Fekete-Gyor, said on Facebook.

“Let’s hope this ship has not sailed,” he added.

Earlier in the day, a Hungarian teachers’ union asked parents not to send their children to school and kindergarten to protect teachers and parents from the pandemic.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens