Budapest, Hungary – Thousands of Hungarian healthcare workers resigned this week to protest against a controversial government reform which came into effect as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases.
Around 5,500 hospital staff quit their post after refusing the sign the new state contracts, which they say sets unacceptable working conditions, pushed by the government in a new law designed to overhaul the country’s healthcare sector.
According to Hungary‘s National Healthcare Service Center (OFKO), “95% of the 110,000 public health workers signed the contract” before the deadline expired on March 1. Initially meant to come into force at the start of 2021, the deadline was pushed back to find time to reach an agreement.
OFKO head Zoltan Jenei tried on Tuesday to alleviate the concerns of those who refused the sign the new state contracts meant to establish their new legal status under the government reform. “There is every guarantee that the standard of care in any part of the country will remain the same as before and may even improve,” he told journalists.
But in a joint statement, the six opposition parties criticized the government’s overhaul, urging authorities to restore health workers’ former legal status and push back the deadline until after the pandemic.
Calling the policy “irresponsible” and “stupid”, Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony said the government was “endangering the security of healthcare provision in the midst of a raging pandemic.”
Adopted by the Parliament last October, the law includes a wage hike for healthcare staff and criminalises gratuities, two moves generally praised by Hungary’s notoriously underpaid industry workers.
But by setting limits on the ability to take jobs in specialised and private-sector clinics, on top of restricting extra compensation including for on-call shifts, many healthcare workers consider the reform will ultimately reduce the income they bring home at the end of the month and further aggravates their already precarious working conditions.
A number of commentators also pointed out that the reform, hastily drafted by Interior Minister Sandor Pinter, included a number of contradictions, and argued the government cynically pushed the reform in the midst of the pandemic to make sure less healthcare workers would resign in protest.
“After more than 25 years as a public health worker, I didn’t sign the new contract,” one worker commented on social media. “I don’t know what comes next, but I made the right decision.”
Reports of hospitals and healthcare facilities emptying of staff throughout the country have been circulating over the past few days, and comes as Hungary faces a worrying surge in cases of COVID-19 infection. In Budapest’s Saint-Imre Hospital, for instance, seven of the intensive care unit’s 28 doctors walked out, along with more than a dozen of its 54 nurses, according to Telex.
Hungary’s healthcare sector is notoriously underfunded, a situation tragically exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. According to Eurostat, Hungary’s healthcare spending per capita stood at 917€, over three times lower than the EU average, while less than 7% of Hungary’s GDP was spent on healthcare (compared to an EU average of nearly 10%).
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