Hungary starts reopening despite highest daily COVID deaths, doctors flag risks

By Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary began a gradual reopening of shops and services on Wednesday as encouraging vaccination numbers offset its highest daily death toll yet from the coronavirus pandemic.

Facing an election in 2022 and hoping to avoid another year of recession, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has delivered at least one vaccine dose to over 25% of Hungarians, paving the way for an easing of lockdown.

Even so, Hungary reported its highest ever daily coronavirus death tally - 311 - on Wednesday, bringing the total to 22,409.

The Hungarian Medical Chamber said in a statement that the reopening was premature as the third wave of the pandemic was not over.

"We believe it is not the current level of vaccinations but an improvement in pandemic figures and a decline in pressure on the healthcare system that should be the precondition for a reopening," the Chamber said.

It added that a reopening of services and the planned restart of schools on April 19 was not yet warranted.

But businesses were happy to have some breathing space again after an economic contraction of 5% last year.

"This virus has destroyed us," said Maria Tarnoky, a hairdresser in Budapest joyfully washing and cutting her first customer's hair after a month's pause.

"If they manage perhaps to vaccinate everybody by the summer then the situation will be great again."

Hungary has reported 693,676 COVID-19 infections, with 12,202 patients still in hospital - more than 1,400 of them on ventilators - which is pressuring the healthcare system.

"I hope we will see a plateau in the near future, the data gives us hope ... but the numbers are still very high," Surgeon General Cecilia Muller told reporters. She said the record daily death tally on Wednesday was partly caused by a lag in data reported from hospitals over the Easter holidays.

Hungary has had the highest daily per capita fatalities in the world for the past few weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Under Wednesday's partial reopening, shops had to limit numbers, hotels could only take business visitors, and restaurants were open just for takeout or delivery.

Downtown Budapest was still largely deserted, with only a trickle of people taking advantage of the relaxation of curbs.

A night curfew has been shortened, but schools are to reopen on April 19 when teachers are vaccinated.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves; Additional reporting by Bernadett Szabo; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrew Cawthorne)