Katalin Nagy: As we’ve heard on the news, in the United Kingdom three million people have already been vaccinated. In Hungary the number stands at around one hundred thousand. Obviously the two countries are different, as the United Kingdom is much bigger than Hungary; but even so, the difference is enormous. What’s the reason for this? I’m putting this question to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom I welcome to the studio. Good morning.
Good morning to you and your listeners. I’ve just arrived here from a meeting of the Operational Group. We start there at six in the morning, and so afterwards I can just manage to get here. I can give you the very latest figure for the number of people vaccinated so far. To date we’ve vaccinated 105,728 people. And I can tell you that our vaccination capacities are far greater than the number of doses of vaccine we have. The reason we’re not making more rapid progress is not because the Hungarian healthcare system isn’t capable of vaccinating people more rapidly on a mass scale, but because we don’t have enough vaccines.
But this is also true elsewhere, isn’t it? We hear about this across half of Europe.
Yes, and this is where we get to your question – which I’d like to leave for later if I may. The numbers for Britain – which I also have – make it clear that while they’ve already vaccinated around 4 per cent of their population, the EU vaccination rate is still less than 1 per cent. This isn’t because our doctors are worse than those in Britain, but because in Europe we don’t have enough vaccines. This leads us to the question of whether we 27 prime ministers came to the right collective decision when we decided on the joint procurement of vaccines. Because those who aren’t taking part in this joint vaccine procurement, but are instead following their own path – like Israel or Britain – have made better progress than we have. But I think that in times of trouble, when there’s a crisis and a pandemic, the issue of responsibility and of why this is how it is will have to wait. And instead of starting to point fingers at Brussels, confronting them with these numbers – which are unfortunately very clear – and targeting the Brusseleers and the Brussels bureaucrats in our frustration, which is high enough as it is, we should try to turn this into creative energy and procure vaccines. Among the many issues the Operational Group discussed this morning, the most important was the status of the procurement of Russian and Chinese vaccines. With the Chinese vaccines the situation is that they’re available, and we can also procure large quantities of them. So now these channels are open. All that’s needed is for the Hungarian health authority to confirm that there are no problems. There are ongoing tests, our people are out in Beijing now, and I truly hope that the Hungarian health authorities will be able to give a clear answer on this within days. Today I asked what’s really being investigated: are we looking into whether this vaccine could perhaps do more harm than the problem we’re trying to solve? Because the Hungarian people – myself included, and everyone else, too – are concerned that we might be given an unknown vaccine that could do more harm than the harm caused by the disease that we want to avoid by using the vaccine. At the Operational Group meeting today we were clearly told that there’s no such risk – the logic of which is strengthened by the fact that the Chinese and the Russians are vaccinating their own peoples in the tens of millions. Then one asks what we are doing, what the authority is doing. The answer is that it’s irrelevant that we’re convinced that there’s no such risk: there’s a protocol that must be followed, and that takes time. In the meantime, however, every day 100 to 110 people are dying. So I’m asking the authorities to proceed with caution, but as quickly as possible, and to tell us “A” or “B”; because here we have more than a million Chinese vaccines that we could make available to people tomorrow morning – or perhaps I’m exaggerating, so within a few days. What we lack at the moment is the paperwork from the authorities. So today the Operational Group dealt with this issue in depth. Today’s data is that 111 of our fellow Hungarians have died, and there are 1,513 new infections. This is always sad news. The promising news, however, is that 4,717 patients have recovered. This means that far more people are recovering than are becoming infected: well over twice as many. This shows that we’re on our way out of this, and that we’ve managed to curb this second wave. The bad news, however, is that if we look around Europe, we see that in most places a third wave has kicked in the door on the people living there. We see that in most Western European countries – particularly in countries that are important for us, such as Germany – the situation isn’t improving, but deteriorating. And rather than easing restrictions, they’re introducing ever stricter measures. Now that I’ve started talking about what happened at the Operational Group meeting, I’d also like to say that as we’re gradually completing the vaccination of healthcare workers, trust in vaccination is continuously increasing. This is what’s happening in Western Europe: at first people are reluctant and cautious, but once they see that no one has come to any harm, people are increasingly willing to be vaccinated. I encourage everyone to apply for vaccination: the Hungarian government is pro-vaccination. So we’ll soon have completed the vaccination of our healthcare workers, and we’ll soon have completed vaccinating residents in care homes. According to the vaccination plan, the third category comprises our compatriots over the age of sixty who suffer from chronic diseases. They’ve been identified on the basis of three main groups of diseases, and they number 1,756,000 people – this is how many people fall into the third vaccination category. In fact we have this many vaccines, and we can save them – or protect them from the risk of the virus – if we get the permission.
How long would it take to vaccinate this third group if we had the paperwork, approval from the Hungarian health authorities?
We’re counting on it taking a weekend. In its own technical terminology the Operational Group talks about “throughput capacity”. Let’s assume people register and present themselves for vaccination – and in a relatively disciplined fashion, not with delays of several days, but within the stated timeframe. In these circumstances, at an average rate of vaccination Hungarian public administration and healthcare staff could guarantee vaccination of at least half a million people a day over a weekend – I’m talking about Saturday and Sunday. This would be an unhurried pace. So over a [long] weekend this would be at least one and a half million people, and that’s roughly how many people have registered so far. What I’m saying is based on the number of people who have registered so far, and if that number starts rising, then the timescale I’ve mentioned won’t hold true. But from what we know at present, all the people who’ve registered so far could be vaccinated over the course of a weekend: on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and perhaps also on a Thursday. There’s no point in overstretching ourselves, and perhaps it would take two weekends; but I can hardly wait to struggle with that problem, because right now our problem is not a shortage of vaccination capacity, but a shortage of vaccines. Hungary’s vaccination capacity is many times greater than the quantity of vaccine supplies currently arriving from the EU.
Didn’t the European Commissioner for Health this week ask Member States not to conduct separate negotiations with manufacturers? Or did this only apply to manufacturers with which the European Commission has already agreed deals?
More than one hundred Hungarians are dying every day. I won’t be told what to do by a Greek commissioner.
It seems that other prime ministers share this view, as several countries are trying to procure vaccines from every possible source.
There are also other countries with prime ministers who regard themselves as patriots, and value their own citizens’ health and lives more than the opinion of some Brussels bureaucrat.
Another important question is which vaccine can be used to start mass vaccination, as we know that the Pfizer vaccine – the one we received first – can only be stored in very special conditions. If we had, say, two million Pfizer vaccines, would we be able to guarantee storage at a temperature of minus seventy degrees at every single vaccination point?
Definitely. However surprising it sounds, when I last looked at this question, the information we received was that there are perhaps only three county hospitals which are unable to guarantee this very high level of refrigeration. I hope that since then even that has been taken care of. So in general the Hungarian healthcare system’s preparedness for situations like this is much better than we tend to believe. When we look at the numbers and compare them with other countries – you may remember how, one after another, entire healthcare systems in Western Europe imploded – we’ll see that the Hungarian healthcare system hasn’t imploded, and hasn’t even been shaken. This has involved an enormous amount of work, and in my opinion doctors and nurses have done a superhuman job. I’ve been to many hospitals, and I have to say that the people I’ve met are fantastic: they’re carrying the entire system on their shoulders. They’re holding it up, and Hungarian healthcare system hasn’t collapsed. Not a single person here in Hungary has been left without care or treatment due to any shortage of doctors or nurses, because they didn’t do their jobs, or because there weren’t enough ventilators or beds. We’re Hungarians, so it’s natural for us to criticise, and we’re always criticising our healthcare system; but in international comparison our system has held its own in terms of resilience and the level of safety it can offer our citizens in a crisis. In an international context I believe that our doctors and nurses are somewhere in the top rank.
When there are enough vaccines, how will you notify people, and who will notify them? People are saying that although they’ve already registered at vakcinainfo.gov.hu, the only reply has been, “Your registration has been received”. They’re still waiting for a vaccination date.
We’ll only be able to make any kind of responsible commitment to offering vaccination dates when we have vaccines. Until we do, we can’t offer people dates. As soon as we have vaccines, we’ll immediately contact the people who have registered. They’ll receive messages confirming their registration, the arrival of the vaccine, and a request to attend a certain vaccination station at a certain time.
Youve said that here in Hungary we’re on our way out of the second wave; and this is borne out by the numbers, as there are far fewer people requiring assisted ventilation, and there are also far fewer people in hospital. But a third wave is starting in the West. Can we only ensure this satisfactory situation, these good numbers, by maintaining these restrictions? I’m asking you because now there’s quite a lot of pressure: it’s not only the elderly who are having difficulties, but also young people, who can’t meet each other and can’t go to entertainment venues.
I don’t know which group you think I belong to, but I also find it hard, so…
We all feel the same way. We’d be only too happy to rid ourselves of this misery. We want to get our lives back, to return to the lives we had before. And I can tell you that if we move forward at the rate determined by the procurements arranged through Brussels, we’ll only reach the number of vaccinations needed to lift the restrictions by the end of the summer or the autumn. Once the health authority completes its job and we’re also able to use the Chinese vaccine, then we’d be able to vaccinate people at a rate that would enable us to get back to our old lives before the summer – or perhaps even well before the summer. This is provided that people themselves choose to be injected with the Chinese vaccine and accept it – because they’ll be able to choose between the Brussels vaccine which is only available in small quantities, the Chinese vaccine available in large quantities, and the Russian vaccine – the availability of which we don’t know at the moment. But this depends on how many vaccines we’re able to procure and how swiftly our authorities will complete the prescribed safety protocol, with the appropriate amount of caution.
As you yourself have suggested, the healthcare system can perhaps now catch its breath – but they still need to work hard. What do you think about some opposition Members of Parliament – most recently an independent MP – sharing videos which seek to prove that the Hungarian government’s efforts in the defence operation against the pandemic are inadequate? They’re saying that there are bodies piled up in a morgue in Szentendre, heaped one on top of another, and they probably died of coronavirus infection because the Government didn’t pay attention to them.
I don’t think that the Government can be held responsible for this, because in this case – into which I’ve ordered an investigation – the institution concerned is operated by a local government. We’re happy to help every local government that’s unable to cope with this task. So rather than pointing the finger, we must help one another, including local governments. It’s not a good feeling having to respond to the Opposition’s behaviour when there are more pressing issues than discussing this, but…
Isn’t the problem that they’re trying to undermine public trust?
I’ll try to be polite. I get the feeling that for the parties of the Left nothing is sacred any longer. And if I look back at the events of 2020, the politest thing I can say is that the Left in Hungary has gone too far. I understand that all a political party wants is to get into power: they want to be in government, they’d like to replace the present government and govern Hungary. I understand this. But in times of crisis I think the mentality they’re displaying – that if something bad happens in the country, the Government can be held responsible for it, and then it can be removed more easily – is the wrong one. Because ultimately this logic leads to thinking that what is bad for the country is good for the Opposition and is good for the Left. In my view, this is not a particularly agreeable thought at the best of times. But in a crisis? When people are dying, when lives are in danger, this way of thinking is deadly. In my opinion this way of thinking is extreme, and they’re going too far: continually trying to prove that the Hungarian healthcare system isn’t working, that Hungarian doctors aren’t doing a good job and that the Government isn’t organising the defence operation against the virus well; trying to show how bad everything is; posting fake videos; hoping that people will hold the Government responsible for this and that then they’ll replace the Government. We know all that.
According to the latest statistical data, in November industrial production increased, and it seems that the construction industry is also beginning to return to normal and is doing well. Perhaps over the course of six months it’s returned to normal. What do you think is the reason for this? What made it possible, for instance, for industrial production to grow in the autumn?
It’s fundamentally due to the fact that people want to work. What’s always behind the Hungarian economy’s performance is that this is a work-based economy. People understand this, they know it, and they want to live from work: they want to work, and they want decent pay for their work. We wouldn’t have good economic results if this desire didn’t exist, if this force didn’t drive the engine of the Hungarian economy. Hungarian people want to work, they want to work hard, and they want to be paid decently. There’s plenty of energy left in the Hungarian economy. Secondly, I also believe that our businesses are improving all the time; they’re the employers and they’re becoming increasingly competitive. We started with a huge disadvantage. Here we had forty years of communism; meanwhile in Western Europe the private economic sphere was free to flourish. Thirty years ago we arrived at the moment when Hungarian businesses had to start competing with their Western counterparts, who already had a forty-year head start. Not only did our businesses not have enough money, but they also had far less understanding of the operation of a free economy based on private property. But as I see it, Hungarian businesses are now on a par with Western businesses in terms of competitiveness. We’re not yet as efficient as they are, but now we’re closer than we used to be: people want to work, and businesses are increasingly better at managing them and at organising their work. This is another pillar of the economy’s performance. And finally I’d modestly like to mention that there’s also a third pillar. There’s a need for an environment which makes working worthwhile. If we raise taxes – this was the essence of left-wing politics until 2010 – less money will be left with people and businesses; people won’t feel a passionate desire and ambition to work. This is why taxes must be reduced. If the environment is right, if it’s worth working and starting businesses – although that’s always risky, but still worthwhile – then ordinary people will run the country’s economy. This is why we – and I, because I’ve made a lot of personal effort in this regard – chose an economic crisis management method that was completely different from those in Western European countries. I observe what they’re doing, but the logic of Hungarian crisis management is different. The logic of Hungarian crisis management focuses clearly and directly on the preservation of jobs and investment. This is what we describe as overtaking on the bend: we want to come out of the bend faster than we went into it. This needs investment, and this is why we’ve implemented enormous tax cuts: in 2020 we reduced central taxes by 423 billion forints, including a cut in social security contributions, and so on; we’ve also reduced local business tax, which is levied by local governments, and as a result, 180 billion forints has been left with businesses.
Yes, but local governments aren’t happy about this.
I understand that, but one shouldn’t always concentrate on one’s own institutional interests. In Budapest, for example, we’ve cut local business tax for small and medium-sized enterprises. But we didn’t divert that money into the country’s budget, the Government’s budget. That moneys here in Budapest – not with the local government, but with people and businesses. That moneys in Budapest. If the meaning of local government is to serve people, they should be happy that the people have more money. It’s true that at times like this it is necessary to adjust, to reorganise operations, to manage funds, and local governments themselves must become more efficient. That’s also true for us: when the Government cut taxes – 432 billion forints in 2020 – it meant that it had to operate more efficiently in return, because you can’t continue as if nothing had happened. You can’t operate a government in the same way with less money. If we leave tax money with people, we the Government must also adjust to that situation. This is sometimes inconvenient and difficult, and we must rack our brains and restructure. But this is the essence of our job. It’s also important that as part of our crisis management I kept three thousand billion forints away from the banks: three thousand billion forints. This is because I imposed a credit debt repayment moratorium. This means that three thousand billion forints have been left with families and businesses, so that during the crisis debtors aren’t required to pay any interest nor repay any of the principal. They’ll do that when the crisis has passed. And the combination of these things, this completely unique Hungarian crisis management method, will be effective. We have added three further elements to this. The first is that from this January we’ve started the gradual reintroduction of the “thirteenth month’s pension”. If I’m not mistaken, there will be an extra week’s pension in the envelope for February. This is also important in terms of morale, because before 2010 the Left took this away from pensioners; and now, after ten years’ hard work, the Hungarian economy is in a condition that allows us to start reintroducing it. The second element we added is an economic policy element: the launch of the biggest ever home refurbishment and housing programme in Hungary. This is as it should be. One building block is missing: I’ve been having some difficult negotiations with the Finance Minister, but we’ve decided that, by 1 January 2022 at the latest, people under 25 will be given full exemption from income tax. This will cost around 130 to 150 billion forints, but I believe that, after pensioners, it’s important that young people should also be given a major opportunity. The minister for family affairs is now calculating the limit – the average salary at most – up to which we should grant full tax exemption to young people. This isn’t unprecedented. There are other countries – Poland, for instance – where this has been introduced, and as far as I can see it’s successful. This would mean that people under the age of 25 would have the opportunity to study and also win professional scholarships. They can start with family housing benefit: CSOK. There’s childbirth credit, and up until the age of 25 people won’t be required to pay personal income tax on their salaries. This offers people the chance to stand on their own two feet by the age of 25, start independent lives and set out on the journey of their next fifty, sixty or seventy years. Anyway, I’d like to introduce this measure if possible on 1 January at the latest.
So next year, in 2022.
Yes, by 1 January 2022 at the latest. If we can manage this, our entire crisis management system will be complete: pensioners will have been helped; young people will have been given a chance; so too will people with families, through housing benefits; there’s a general tax cut, so businesses will likewise be able to manage. And then the combination of all of these elements will add up to an economic year and an economic future that we’d all like to see.
Let’s briefly return to local governments. Will they be able to turn to the Government to ask for some support or compensation because they believe that otherwise they won’t be able to fulfil their basic duties – for instance, providing street lighting, as the Mayor of Budapest often claims? They already had the chance to do so, shortly before the end of the year.
The thing is that we don’t use the word “compensation”, because the money remains here in Budapest. If the money had gone to the Government, it would be understandable; but it’s here, with the people of Budapest, and with the people living in the settlements run by local governments. So the money has remained in their settlements. But there are settlements where this could cause difficulties, and the smaller they are, the more likely they are to encounter problems. Therefore we arrived at the general decision that settlements with populations of less than 25,000 will receive from the Government an amount that is roughly the same as – but certainly not less than – the revenue they had previously been able to collect in the form of local business taxes. We cut the local business tax without cutting it for everyone. We halved it, but we didn’t halve it for everyone: we did so only for Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises, but not for multinational companies – the rule is that it only applies to businesses with a turnover of under four billion forints. In fact these are all Hungarian small and medium-sized businesses. So the money has been left with the businesses in settlements; they can retain their workers and won’t have to make people redundant. Few people know this, of course, but don’t forget that businesses don’t pay local business tax on their profits, but on their turnover. If a company has become loss-making due to the crisis, but still has sales, it’s still required to pay local business tax – but now 50 per cent less. This is a rather cruel kind of tax, because it pays no regard to a business’s profitability. Anyway, I believe that smaller settlements, which naturally have fewer opportunities and less room for financial manoeuvre, must unquestionably be given some support. We’ve set the threshold for settlement size at 25,000 inhabitants. We’ll see how larger ones manage, how they reorganise themselves, how they adapt to the situation. But the Government is there to help everyone.
A brief question at the end. Last week you said that growth will be much stronger than one could have expected this year – perhaps, now only in the second half of the year. Many people are sceptical, saying that the Hungarian Prime Minister is overly optimistic. What’s your optimism based on?
There have been times when I was more optimistic than this, and when was bolder, too. Everyone can remember the decrepit state of the country in 2010. Back then, for example, I undertook to create one million new jobs – and now the figure for new jobs is over 850,000. And let me just add that last month, in December, more people were in work in the midst of the crisis than one year earlier, before the crisis. The figures change on a monthly basis, so it could be a thousand or two more or less; but when we’re finally through the pandemic, we’ll not only deliver on my promise or undertaking to create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus, but in fact to create more jobs than are destroyed by the virus. This isn’t an unfounded idea, because having managed to pull this country out of a crisis situation in 2010, why shouldn’t we succeed in doing the same in the present crisis situation? I’m trying to phrase this cautiously, because people will want to question everything I say. But my decisions, opinions and views aren’t only mine personally; naturally, they’re mine, but they’re also the views of hundreds of experts. Entire teams are working hard behind me. When I say something in the first person singular, it should be construed in the first person plural: it should be construed as “we”, as in several people together. Although the Prime Minister takes ultimate responsibility and he’s in the limelight, a lot of people are working together – outstanding people. Furthermore, if I may say so, we are of the people – we personally understand the people. I know what life is like in villages, because I lived there, I was born there. I know what life’s like in towns, because I went to secondary school there. And I know what life’s like in the capital, because that’s where I went to university. One half of my family is from Transdanubia, and the other from Hunnia, the Great Plain. So I know what it’s like in one half of the country, and what it’s like in the other. The decisions we take are based on an understanding of the people. They don’t come from textbooks and ideologies, but from an understanding of the Hungarian people. We know what Hungarians like and what they don’t like, what they accept and what they don’t accept, what they can benefit from and make use of, and what they’ll never accept, even if offered, because it’s not part of their culture. So an understanding of the country is key to the management of every crisis. And 2010 was successful because it was based on this understanding, this understanding of the country and the people. The same is also true now. My belief that we’ll be successful in 2021 is based on the fact that I know that people will work if they have job opportunities. If people are treated fairly, they work far more – perhaps more than is sometimes good for them. And if they’re paid well, they’re prepared to work more. So Hungarians have a natural tendency for productivity, but they must be helped to release it. This needs tax reductions. The left-wing policy of raising taxes stifles Hungarians’ energies, and they’re wary of the government and the state. If they have to keep reaching into their pockets to pay taxes, if there are too many bureaucratic rules, if taxes are too high, then people and Hungarian families become defensive. I’ve seen this happen for long periods of time. If they see tax cuts, fewer rules, and a government that genuinely wants them to prosper, then suddenly they stop resisting and begin to cooperate. And this cooperation that we’re building – this is why I call it a system of national cooperation – will bring economic results. I think this will also be the case in 2021.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.