Katalin Nagy: The number of daily new infections has broken records both in Hungary and abroad. While in the last couple of weeks the average age of those infected has been 26, this seems to have changed: in just one day 29 infections were diagnosed at the Kamaraerdő Care Home. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What do you think you should focus on? There has been confirmation of what experts said about the second wave of the pandemic.
Good morning. First of all, let’s talk about this specific case. The first and second waves of the virus differ in a number of respects. Our defence operation will also be different, but in one respect it will be the same: the virus primarily endangers the elderly – our parents and grandparents. We must primarily focus our attention on them. Just as during the first wave, care homes are now particularly at risk. Therefore I ask all care home operators to exercise the highest level of responsibility in their work. This care home, the one in Kamaraerdő, comes under the jurisdiction of the City of Budapest. It’s a fine thing for the Mayor of Budapest to write letters to me; but I ask him to do his job, and not to experiment. This isn’t the same as marking out a cycle lane, which might or might not work; here the stakes are high and lives are at risk. I’m asking everyone, including the Mayor of Budapest, to treat this with the seriousness it deserves, rather than writing politically motivated messages. With regard to the essence of the matter, we have a battle plan. We knew that the second wave would be different from the first one. All our professors, experts and healthcare institutions predicted this. Therefore the battle plan also had to be devised differently. I believed – and perhaps we weren’t wrong – that the right thing to do was to hold a national consultation after the first shock, because the first wave came as a shock everywhere in the world, including in Hungary. In the space of one week we needed to reorganise the country according to an entirely different mode of operation: we had to declare a state of danger, a state of danger due to pandemic; we had to reorganise public administration; we had to switch over to online teaching; and we had to introduce restrictions on movement. And effectively we had to do all of this within a single week. In this respect the country didn’t do badly in the test. In fact, with due modesty I could say that it passed the test with flying colours, as all possible data and measurable information shows that in the fight against the pandemic we are among the world’s most successful countries. Everyone took this test, and I’m not just talking about the Government, the police, epidemiological experts and Cecília Müller – although they did well; I’m taking about how the country passed this test. It’s all well and good to create rules, but whether or not they’re observed depends on people themselves. And during the first wave we could see strong discipline, unity, a keen sense of responsibility and mutual support. So I can say there was national cooperation. The management of the second wave, however, requires two things: experience, which we’ve got; but we’ve had to find out, based on the experiences of the first wave, what people are prepared to accept. This is why we launched the national consultation. So the battle plan that we prepared and we have in our hands – in my hands today – primarily relies on the results of the national consultation, as it contains the points of understanding on which there is a general consensus in Hungary. If I had to sum up the result of the national consultation in a single sentence, I’d say that the people want Hungary to continue functioning. They put it even more strongly: Hungary must continue functioning! We must not allow the virus to paralyse Hungary again. I don’t see any uncertainty on that. Very many people are concerned that schools, kindergartens and shops – and therefore our entire lives – will have to be shut down and subjected to tough restrictions, as they were during the first wave. I’d like to make it clear to the listeners that we’re preparing for the opposite of this. Naturally we want to protect the lives of the elderly, our parents and grandparents – there’s no question about that. There are disease control measures, such as visiting bans in hospitals, and so on and so forth. These must be strictly observed. But this time the goal is not for everyone to stay at home and for the country to come to a halt. The goal is to protect Hungary’s viability. The people also take the view – at least this is how I interpret the results of the consultation – that we cannot afford to allow the virus to paralyse the country again. So in addition to protecting the elderly, our battle plan is primarily about how to protect the functioning of the country. We adopted some decisions on this at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. The Operational Group will meet early on Saturday morning, and the Economic Cabinet has been convened for later on Saturday morning. And today I’m meeting with the prime ministers of the V4 countries, in order to create a disease control coordination mechanism. And in the coming days and weeks we will adopt a succession of disease control and economic measures in order to protect the country’s viability.
Although the measures in effect today aren’t as strict as those in the spring and early summer, should we expect some new kinds of restrictions? I’m asking this because this week we heard that teaching had to be partially suspended or the start of the school year had to be postponed in between ten and twenty of the country’s six thousand schools.
There’s no need to expect general restrictions. Naturally we cannot stand by if the pandemic appears in a particular school. The response will not be to close down the entire school, however, but first to try and isolate those who’ve been infected, and trace their contacts. If this doesn’t work we’ll have to isolate the entire class, and only if that doesn’t work could the entire school be closed. But even in that event we must provide for the supervision of children who haven’t been infected, so that parents can continue their day-to-day lives as usual. We don’t want parents to have to stay at home because teaching has been suspended. Parents have put up a good fight, and we salute them. We already knew that Hungarian mothers are like tigresses protecting their cubs, and that’s how it should be; but I think that in the spring their menfolk also fought well. With difficulty, faced with difficult circumstances, families managed to rearrange their lives for their children. Now we’d like to avoid the need to do this again. This is why we’re not closing schools; there are no general kindergarten or school closures, and this must be avoided if at all possible. So we’ll be making one-off decisions. The Operational Group has the authority to make decisions centrally on the possible closure of schools. But the goal is precisely the opposite of this: it is to keep schools open. The Government has adopted a few decisions, and I’ll regularly inform members of the public about the latest ones. The decision we’ve adopted now – if I may tell you about it – is that, in order to better protect the elderly, care homes and hospitals must be closed to visitors; and visiting bans will be enforced by the police if necessary. So this time we’re not simply asking everyone to observe certain rules, but we’re saying that these few rules must be enforced. I ask everyone not to harbour animosity towards our police force on this account. The compulsory wearing of face masks must be taken seriously, and extended if necessary. We’ve ordered compulsory body temperature checks for everyone entering schools, and I’ve instructed the Health Minister, Minister Kásler, to provide flu vaccines free of charge to all who want them. And I’ve issued another instruction for a regulation in the near future so that we can standardise the official price of tests.
This no doubt affects a great many people, but it’s definitely good news that teaching can start in schools. Everyone says that this was absolutely necessary, and that there will be restrictions if the need arises. But everyone must observe the rules, mustn’t they? We see that some people – although not many – are not wearing face masks, say, on public transport. Indeed, someone has even turned to the National Election Office with a request for a referendum on revoking the legal requirement to wear face masks, because it restricts their freedoms.
And that person is right: it does. But there’s a pandemic, and so we must have those restrictions. There’s no point in arguing about whether or not we’re restricting certain individual freedoms, because of course if there’s a rule that one can only travel on BKV [Budapest Public Transport] wearing face masks, then this imposes a restriction on those who don’t want to wear face masks. But at present we can’t tolerate the specific approach of one citizen in ten – or in a hundred; because if we do tolerate it, then that person will infect everyone else. The very essence of disease control measures is that – based on a consensus formed within as wide a circle as possible, in the national consultation – we adopt rules which everyone must comply with, whether or not they like them. We’re not talking about an afternoon coffee circle or tea party: the situation is that if we’re undisciplined, we’ll be posing a threat to others. It’s bad enough if someone poses a threat to themselves, but that’s their own private affair. This isn’t the case here, however: normal life in a village, district or city can be disrupted as a result of a few undisciplined people’s specific interpretation of freedom. We should avoid this. I want to give reassurance and confirm the belief that this won’t last forever. We won’t have to wear face masks for the rest of our lives: these rules will be lifted as soon as the pandemic has passed. But I’ve instructed the Interior Minister to enforce measures until we reach that point in time. There are fines and, as a last resort – if polite words aren’t enough, and fines don’t help – we will have to remove people from BKV vehicles if they’re endangering other passengers by refusing to wear face masks.
What’s the essence of the arrangement on coordinating the V4 countries’ disease control measures that you’ll be discussing in Poland today?
Well, you saw the storm that was whipped up when Hungary closed its borders. This was despite the fact that we did so flexibly, using common sense: the borders can be crossed, but under much stricter conditions, and only for certain purposes – excluding tourism, for example. But the whole European Union reacted to this with visible indignation. Of course we shouldn’t be cowed by this, because it’s what they do: this is the typically indignant reaction of Brussels bureaucrats when something happens which isn’t in line with what they’ve dreamt up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. This is how it was during the migration crisis. As tends to happen, eventually they’ll adopt our rules. But we have neighbours here with whom we’ve forged especially close and deep cooperation over the past thirty years, based on the foundations of our shared Central European historical fate, our communal fate: with the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks. And we’d also like to profit from this deep, friendly cooperation in the area of cooperation on disease control. We want to adopt rules which are related primarily to these countries; and while the rules on entry have been tightened, they give special concessions to V4 nationals.
We need to exchange information as rapidly as possible. If their countries are employing the same defence system as we are, and if there the numbers are no worse than here, I see no reason why a Pole or a Slovak shouldn’t be allowed to enter Hungary. So in this difficult time for the whole of Europe I believe that we’ll be able to create an island of safety in Central Europe where – with the application of special rules – movement and the possibility of a shared life with the Slovaks, Poles and Czechs will be maintained.
This week there was a meeting, a video conference, in preparation for the next EU summit. What will be discussed? And since when has Angela Merkel been calling you to agree the topics of the summit?
This is a very busy time right now. Yesterday I spoke with Donald Trump: last night I was at home in the kitchen when the President called me, and we spoke at length about the coronavirus situation in the US, the prospects for the election, and quite a few other issues related to US-Hungarian cooperation. This clearly shows that in the modern world things are no longer how most people imagine them to be, with special protected telephone lines, security and whatever. Those things do exist, because every now and then there are issues such as security and NATO on which we need to talk on secure lines. But today this is no longer always the case, and from time to time leaders call each other. I also do this, and first of all we ask each other, “How are you?” Then, “How’s your fight against the virus going?” There are some people with whom one has a friendlier relationship. For example, the President of the US and the Central Europeans – not only Hungary – maintain very close, friendly relations. This is due to the fact that what the President of the US stands for is good for Central Europe – and this is one of the reasons we’re rooting for him to win the election, or at least I am personally rooting for him. But the same goes for the Chancellor of Germany. So we not only communicate on strictly protected lines, but if necessary we call each other to say, “I heard what’s happened, I have a question, can you tell me something?” So the world of politics today is not what it used to be in the old days, when we exchanged messages through ambassadors, telegrams were sent, and so on. Today, whilst observing security protocols, a part of everyday cooperation between colleagues involves speaking to one another. Well, in Council meetings during the German presidency the idea has emerged that it’s worth discussing certain issues in smaller groups, and the day before yesterday five or six of us were involved in a meeting. The agenda was dominated by critical foreign policy issues – primarily the problems Cyprus is experiencing with Turkey due to the oil and gas finds there. And we also planned a China-Europe summit which we had needed to reschedule due to the pandemic. We’ve now continued the preparations for this, despite the fact that there was limited participation. We told the German chancellor what we thought about China-Europe cooperation. If it weren’t for the pandemic, this would probably be a central political topic, as the whole world is changing, and the United States is no longer the sole occupant of the world’s throne. We’re now in a more complex situation, and Europe doesn’t want to be sandwiched or trapped between the Chinese and the Americans. We also need independent European policy in this area. These are the most critical and important questions for the next twenty to thirty years; but today no one’s interested in them, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, children need to be taken to school, and the question is whether the Government will be able to prevent school closures. Today everyone thinks that these questions are more important than geopolitical issues. But this doesn’t mean that we can just forget about them: in the meantime we must also attend to the big issues. Right now my life and work schedule is arranged so that around eighty per cent of my time is devoted to the fight against the pandemic, to the economy and to healthcare decisions, while geopolitics, international relations and intergovernmental affairs account for twenty per cent.
I assume that during these conversations you discuss what economic protection measures a given government has implemented, and whether they’re proving to be effective. Earlier you promised that perhaps by mid-September there would be another package enabling us to maintain the economy’s momentum – or the tempo that’s developed.
Naturally, we’re always learning from one another. Of course there’s national pride, and so prime ministers rarely say that they’ve learnt something from other countries; and that’s how it should be – because, after all, every country has prestige, pride and self-esteem. But the truth is that, as is the case in every other line of business, we do learn from one another. Furthermore, we practise open governance, continuously consulting with and talking to others. This is because we’re convinced that one can never be smart enough on one’s own – and this is definitely true in politics. So one always needs ideas and inspiration: one needs to obtain new impulses from somewhere, so that instead of following the usual path one finds new solutions to new situations. And someone coming from a background like mine, a kind of research institute intelligentsia, people from the realm of academia, we especially need intellectual inspiration. I hope this increases our performance and effectiveness. So we’re always talking about who has introduced what taxation system, how we regulate certain public health issues, and what we try to do to combat unemployment – which is especially important when a virus is spreading. We talk about all these issues. The Hungarian government now has a battle plan, and in the days ahead I’ll talk about this in several places on several occasions. We know what we must do – or we’re convinced we know what we must do. Now we must break this down into practical steps. There’s the issue of jobs, for instance. We want to create as many jobs as were eliminated by the virus. If you look at the numbers you’ll see that we’re doing better now than we were in January. In Hungary today there are more people in work than there were in January this year. This didn’t happen automatically: it happened as a result of certain measures. Then, for instance, there’s the issue of tourism, which in March was in a catastrophic situation. We made decisions on a voucher system for leisure expenses, and so on and so forth. We created a financial opportunity for people to engage in domestic tourism, and just look at how it has worked in provincial Hungary: there are numbers and results like never before. Budapest is another matter, and is a difficult situation, because tourism in Budapest relies on foreigners. And that source has collapsed. Fortunately the City of Budapest still has more than one hundred billion forints, which was set aside by [former Mayor of Budapest] István Tarlós. Fifty or sixty billion forints of this could easily be used.
But they say that they don’t want to do that.
Yes, but I think that eventually common sense will prevail. There are many taxi drivers in Budapest who will go bankrupt without foreign tourists; taxi drivers need help. People working in tourism need help. I believe that people working in the catering industry need help. And the situation is the same in hotels. So Budapest is special: it’s the richest city in Hungary, but now it’s in the deepest trouble. Luckily, however, the municipality has enough savings to mobilise. And I think it will have to do so. So returning to your question, we’re adopting a series of decisions. Once again I’ll join the ranks of internet hussars, sign into Facebook more often, and inform the public about this or that decision. I’ll explain that we’re adopting a series of decisions which not only seek to maintain the economy’s viability, but enhance its performance and efficiency. I’d like to see pay rises and I’d like more people in employment. I’d like there to be investments. We’ve taken some steps in this direction, and I’m convinced that if there’s an atmosphere of unity in the country, then all these actions will bear fruit. I’ll need to communicate more over the next two or three weeks; I’ll have to talk more to people directly about these issues, and that’s just what I’ll do.
Is there any money left for this? Will there be enough money for this?
When in my youth I complained about the things I didn’t have time for, my father said that everyone has time for what they want to have time for. Well, this is also true for money. Naturally there’s never enough money, but if you want there to be, there will be. We’re working on this. The budget deficit isn’t looking good. My plan was to keep our budget deficit at an extremely low level by European standards during the pandemic. We’ve had to modify this goal. If we were to keep to our earlier line, the country would come to a halt, so we’re compelled to count on a higher deficit. Trust in the Hungarian economy is extremely strong, especially here at home. So if we issue bonds to the general public they’ll buy them, because they themselves can see – I believe that over the past few years they’ve been able to see – that the country is on an upward trajectory. It’s worth lending money to the Hungarian state – particularly if it offers a good rate of interest in return. We’ve devised an interest scheme for government securities which offers people more interest than if they’d put their money in the bank. There are two types: one linked to the rate of inflation and another that isn’t linked to inflation. So I’d like to offer an opportunity to people with money – and let’s not forget that the level of Hungarian families’ savings has never been as high as it is today. The National Bank has clearly shown that there’s money at home – although it’s no longer tucked away under mattresses. We’d like to mobilise these funds, and so we’re offering government securities which offer a good rate of interest to people who buy them. Why should I give George Soros or foreign bankers the chance to make a profit from buying government securities, when I can give Uncle Kovács and his neighbours the chance to buy securities – the interest from which will end up in their pockets, and not in the pockets of foreign creditors? Of course this requires them to have faith in the Hungarian state. It works. But when we turn to the international money market and borrow a couple of billion euros or dollars, as we did recently, we also see that trust is extremely strong: Hungary is seen as being strong. Credit default insurance against the risk of state bankruptcy is continuously falling. This is an indicator that I check every morning, and it’s going down. So what I see is that trust in the Hungarian economy is strong. And if there’s trust, there’s money. All that’s needed is intelligent economic policy leadership. But if we look at the leadership of the National Bank, the Ministry of Finance and my economic advisors, we’re not doing too badly in terms of intelligence. We have brains, courage, competence and ideas. These must be converted and organised into rational decisions. This is what I’m doing. We will announce a series of decisions. So my answer to your question on whether there’s enough money for economic policy resulting in higher economic growth is that there is, and we’re continuously raising ever more funds.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.