Coronavirus Europe: Schengen on the brink as Hungary SHUTS borders

Speaking at a news briefing today, hours before the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a global pandemic, Gergely Gulyas, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, said the ban on the countries – the worst hit globally – would come into effect immediately, as well as travel restrictions on people coming from neighbouring Austria. The ban on Italian tourists follows a similar move imposed by Vienna yesterday.

Hungarian universities will also be closed and public gatherings of more than 100 people indoors and 500 people outdoors will be banned, he said.

Announcing a state of emergency, Mr Gulyas said the restrictions would remain in place until further notice, warning the government expected the epidemic’s impact to last months rather than weeks.

One of the main goals was to stop the epidemic from spreading from Italy towards Hungary via Austria and Slovenia, he added.

Budapest will therefore ban bus and train traffic from those areas as of midnight tonight, as well as flights from the hardest-hit countries, he said.

Mr Gulyas said decision had been made in line with a proposal by the interior minister and the operative board.

Anyone spreading rumours or violating quarantine rules would be prosecuted, he added.

Any documents which are due to expire in the near future would remain valid during the state of emergency, Mr Gulyas added.

Schools would remain open for the moment, but the situation could change at short notice, he stressed.

Italy has been placed under lockdown until next month.

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Hungary does not share a border with Italy, but is very popular with Italian tourists, and many Hungarians likewise travel to northern Italy.

Austria said on Tuesday it was introducing border checks and would deny entry to people arriving from Italy.

Hungary has 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but no one has died so far.

As of yesterday, Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe, had 9,172 cases of the illness, and 463 deaths, according to WHO figures.

The banning of visitors from Italy technically puts both Hungary and Austria in breach of Schengen, which came into force in 1985, and to which they are both signatories, although the prospect of Brussels sanctioning either in the current circumstances would appear remote.

Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said: “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.

“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.”

There are more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died, Dr Ghebreyesus said, with the numbers expected to climb.

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