Hungary's government defended its policy forcing hospitals to free up beds to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic after rights groups said that several patients with chronic diseases had died after being kicked out of hospitals.
The government sent a letter to hospitals in early April, demanding that half of the country's 68,000 hospital beds be made available to COVID-19 patients.
444, an independent news website, said the government's order was based on a forecast that between 150,000 and 180,000 people would contract the virus in the country.
A tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University indicates that as of May 6, Hungary has recorded 3,150 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 383 deaths.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the measure resulted in many patients, "some of whom have cancer or other chronic or terminal illnesses and require constant care", being transferred to alternative facilities or sent home to be cared for by family members.
Athina Nemeth, a hospice and volunteer home care worker in Budapest, told the NGO that out of the ten patients she cared for who were sent home, including one with an open stomach wound and another with a stoma bag, nine have now died.
The NGO also said it is impossible to know how many people were sent home because the government has not released any information on the subject.
"The Hungarian government should ensure the April 7 order does not create another human rights crisis, including by denying particularly vulnerable patients access to adequate medical care. They should ensure adequate numbers of beds in alternative care facilities and support the home care system with necessary funding," HRW said in a statement.
"The authorities should also respond to concerns from professionals, patients, and their relatives with full transparency on the fate of patients removed from the care they were receiving," it added.
Contacted by Euronews, the Hungarian health ministry defended itself, saying the measure was part of "a very disciplined protective operation across the country to slow the spread of the pandemic".
"We needed to prepare for an uncertain future," it said, adding they've regularly consulted "experts, doctors and scientists" about the best approach to take.
"We've come to the conclusion that for the worst-case scenario we'll need 8,000 operational ventilators and more than 30,000 beds — all exclusively dedicated to the care of coronavirus patients. This was the goal," it went on.
According to the government, over a third of the country's hospital beds were unused before the pandemic which meant that hospitals had to increase COVID-19 capacity by 16 per cent.
The health ministry told Euronews that a medical panel decided which medical interventions were to be categorised as non-urgent and that guidelines were issued to hospitals so they could send home those who could be cared for at home or did not need to be urgently treated.
"Politics cannot accept any role in making this decision, because we don't possess the necessary knowledge: this is a matter for the relevant experts," it added.
"But we reiterate: this is the case for 16 per cent of all hospital beds, and this problem cannot be solved any other way," the ministry told Euronews.
This article has been updated to reflect that 444 is an independent news website.