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Hungarian hospital staff quit over new state contract

A senior Hungarian health official tried to allay fears about standards of care Tuesday, after several thousand hospital workers quit over new state contracts they say offered unacceptable terms.

The row comes as the country tackles steeply rising Covid-19 infection case numbers and deaths.

The National Healthcare Service Center (OFKO), the body that runs state-owned hospitals, said that "95 percent of the 110,000 public health workers signed the contract" before a deadline of March 1.

But those who did not sign, some 5,500 workers, can no longer work in the public health sector under the terms of a new law designed to overhaul the country's hospitals.

OFKO head Zoltan Jenei sought Tuesday to quell alarm that some hospitals, already hard-pressed due to the coronavirus pandemic, would be unable to function.

"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," Jenei told journalists.

The law setting out new employment terms was adopted by parliament last October, and included a wage hike that Prime Minister Viktor Orban hailed as "unprecedented" this century.

It also criminalised gratuities from patients offered as bribes to doctors -- a common practise in Hungary -- and set limits for taking on jobs outside the public health system.

Covid cases surging

But many healthcare workers objected that the law restricted extra compensation on top of basic salaries, for example for on-call shifts, and could in effect cause a drop in take-home pay.

They also complained that it would prevent them taking second jobs at specialist clinics.

Since March 1, local news and social media have reported hospital departments around the country emptying of staff.

"After more than 25 years as a public health worker I didn't sign the new contract," one public healthcare worker commented on Facebook. "I don't know what comes next, but I made the right decision."

According to a letter published by the Telex.hu news-site only 20 percent of specialists in one department at the capital's South Pest hospital had signed the new contract.

"The department is now unable to function," said its head doctor.

Intensive care staff at the Saint Imre hospital in Budapest announced their departure Monday and said that "the (department) lights had been switched off".

Workers at a casualty department in the town of Tatabanya, west of the capital, also quit en masse, according to the Index.hu news-site.

The dispute comes as Hungary experiences a surge in coronavirus case and deaths. To date, more than 435,000 people have caught the virus, resulting in 15,188 deaths.

Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony issued a statement condemning the government for "endangering the security of healthcare provision in the midst of a raging epidemic".

The Hungarian health system has long suffered from underfunding. Health spending per capita is only about half of the EU average according to the World Health Organization.

Topics: Hungary , COVID-19 , World Health Organization , Gergely Karacsony
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