(Adds Orban’s comments on economy, new loan)
BUDAPEST, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Hungary’s vaccination drive will accelerate and could potentially enable the country to ease coronavirus restrictions in April after Easter, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.
Nationalist Orban, who will face parliamentary elections in early 2022, is under pressure to reopen the economy.
Finance Minister Mihaly Varga said the economy was likely to shrink again in the first quarter but that the second quarter could be a turning point, forecasting gross domestic product would rebound by 13.8% from the same period last year when the country entered a severe lockdown as the pandemic hit.
Hungary has already vaccinated nearly 250,000 people using Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines and, first in the European Union, has signed deals to buy large quantities of Russia’s Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine and Chinese company Sinopharm’s vaccine.
Orban said the government would soon launch a national survey on how people felt about the reopening and decisions about easing could be made as soon as March 1 with a view to reopening around Easter, which falls on the first weekend in April.
“... and then we could surely live our lives more freely if we observe the rules in a disciplined manner until then,” Orban told an online conference.
Lockdown measures imposed by the government in November include a 1900 GMT curfew, a ban on all gatherings and the closure of hotels and restaurants. Hungary has reported 12,832 deaths from COVID-19 so far.
Orban also said the government would launch a new loan for small businesses to help them recover from the impact of the pandemic.
Small businesses will be eligible for a 10-year loan of up to 10 million forints ($33,726.81) at 0% interest rate. That comes on top of a big boost to family benefits, and grants to families to renovate their homes, after Orban’s government went on a spending spree in view of the 2022 elections.
Orban also said it was time for Hungarian ownership to increase in more sectors of the economy - a key plank of his government’s policies. These include IT and construction, after domestic ownership was lifted to above 50% in the banking, energy and media sectors over the past decade.
Businessmen close to Orban and his ruling Fidesz party have gained a big sway over the economy, often benefiting from state procurement contracts and EU funds. (Reporting by Anita Komuves and Krisztina Than Editing by Mark Heinrich and Susan Fenton)