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Exclusive interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the M1 public service television news channel programme “This Evening”

Tünde Volf-Nagy: Good evening to our viewers, and to Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary.

Good evening.

In September when we last talked, here in the library of the Carmelite Monastery, many people who expected sweeping, dramatic announcements in early September were certainly disappointed. At that time the number of daily cases was 916; but sadly this number has now risen to above 4,000, and even topped 5,000. Why is now the time now to make dramatic announcements?

Drama is not the right genre, so it’s best to avoid it. But there are moments when the time comes to make a decision, and then it must be made without hesitation. We’re part of a large European region; we don’t live here alone, and although we were among the first to close our country’s borders, we’ve remained in contact with the other European countries. The pace of our life differs from that of others only within a certain bandwidth: what’s happening in Hungary is more or less what’s happening in other EU countries. We’re fortunate, because we have a laboratory called Austria; I’m always observing them and consulting them, and I’m working most closely with their chancellor. I can tell you that as regards the number of infections, at present Hungary is where Austria was a week ago, when they themselves introduced a curfew. The situation here is still acceptable; it’s far from easy, but compared with, say, Western Europe – where there are not only curfews at night, but also during the day – Austria and Hungary are still doing well.

Now that you’ve mentioned neighbouring countries or Western European countries, a few days or weeks ago they introduced stringent measures. Why did we wait this long?

Hungary, Austria and Germany have the largest numbers of hospital beds in Europe, and Hungary has the most ventilators. In the coming days you’ll see how difficult it is to live with a curfew. Therefore we must continuously seek the point at which normal life can still be maintained, at which living conditions will still be normal, we can gauge and preserve health, and at which we can more or less predict what will happen. I can tell you that I’ve pondered this decision a great deal. According to our scientists and analysts, if things continue as they have done so far, then there’s a 50 per cent chance that the healthcare system will be able to cope. We have unlimited – or almost unlimited – supplies of personal protective equipment. Doctors are good, nurses are excellent; but their numbers are finite – and, despite their superhuman efforts, they’re also human. So today all my advisors are telling me that if things continue like this and we don’t implement further measures, then there will only be a 50 per cent chance that we’ll be able to provide care for patients in our hospitals. And that’s a very low percentage. We couldn’t wait any longer, and these decisions needed to be adopted now.

When last week you said that by the beginning of December we’ll need around ten times as many ventilators as we do now, healthcare workers pricked up their ears – because we may well have enough ventilators, but we certainly don’t have enough specialist doctors and nurses.

I look at the numbers, and I’ll repeat this: I also look at Austria, and the rule of thumb is that we’re one week behind them. I see how many beds they have and how many ventilators they need; we have more ventilators than they do. If you walk into a hospital, you’ll see that critically ill patients are in intensive care and are on assisted ventilation. There’s a rule about how many patients a doctor or nurse is able to attend to satisfactorily in normal circumstances. This number can be increased – say from four to eight, from eight to sixteen, et cetera. And if beds are in a big enough single space they’ll be able to supervise what’s happening. And it’s true that they only need to monitor machines, but it’s impossible for a single person to monitor twenty or thirty machines with the same focus and sense of responsibility. So there’s a limit which we must take account of. Doctors have warned us that there’s a limit beyond which they’d be unable to responsibly attend to that many patients. That’s the point at which there wouldn’t be enough doctors and nurses. There’s space, there are beds, there are ventilators and there are staff; but there are more patients than they can care for, the way you’d care for, say, your mother or father – with truly attentive, humane care.

There are currently six thousand coronavirus patients in hospital, which is six times the number at the peak coronavirus pandemic in the spring. Healthcare workers are anxious, and experts are keeping you informed continuously. But aside from statistics and the system, earlier you said that if this trend continues, the healthcare system could collapse. If we talk about people and doctors rather than the system and statistics, what do experts mean by the healthcare system possibly collapsing? Does this mean that there wouldn’t be enough beds, or doctors?

Patients are in hospital beds, and we know how many doctors we need per patient, how many nurses and how many people who can lift sometimes critically ill patients: hospital porters. We know these numbers. So I repeat: as the pandemic grows, there’s a 50 per cent possibility that we’ll be able to cope with the situation somehow with the present number of doctors, nurses and hospital porters. But this risk is too high. This is why we’ve had to adopt these decisions. Perhaps we would cope, but if not, then we’d be in crisis. Therefore this was the time to adopt these decisions. The number of staff available is less than that which is optimal for patient care, and this is why we’ve also called up medical students.

In September there were relatively few restrictions; almost the only restriction – or the strictest one – was the mandatory wearing of face masks. You said that if everyone wore face masks as required, there would be no need for further restrictions. Yet now there is a need. Is this because a lot of people didn’t wear masks, or didn’t wear them correctly – or was the threat underestimated?

There’s an obvious connection, although I wouldn’t place the blame on the public. People live how they can and how they’re allowed to. If 80 per cent of people wear face masks and people wear face masks in 80 per cent of their face-to-face interactions, that will be enough to at least slow down the spread of the virus – or even to halt it. This worked for a while. If people hadn’t been disciplined enough and hadn’t worn face masks as much as they did, we’d have sooner come to the point of needing to introduce a curfew. So it’s good that they wore masks, but this was only enough to bring us to the current situation. That has come to an end, and now we’ll need something else. From midnight tonight face masks must be worn in all public spaces, as is the case in most European countries.

The curfew will extend from eight every evening until five the next morning. As people must be home by eight, aren’t you concerned that in the early evening – say at around five, six or seven – there could be overcrowding in grocery stores and supermarkets? Will this be monitored?

Yes we are concerned, but we trust people’s wisdom and insight. They’ll make sure that they maintain a safe distance from one another to avoid causing problems for others; and we also trust shop assistants’ discretion in only letting in as many people as can be safely served.

The pandemic is placing many restrictions on us, and of course these measures are also placing restrictions on our lives. Some people are more put out by not being able to go to the theatre, while for others the problem is that they can’t play sport – or at least can’t go to the gym.

Libraries will also be closed.

Libraries will be closed, as will zoos. Football matches will be played behind closed doors – just as we’re looking forward to some historic games. To put it mildly, a lot of people were following your decision on this very closely.

Just as any normal person would. There is health and life, and there is entertainment; the two mustn’t be confused with each other. There is the cart and the horse, and you mustn’t put the cart before the horse. So life and protecting ourselves come first. We all love going to the library, the cinema, the theatre and football matches, but now all that’s completely secondary.

On the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary” last Friday you gave what I felt was a completely convincing argument for not changing over to online teaching, particularly in secondary schools. You said that when teenagers are at school they’re at least under supervision, and subject to checks on whether they’re wearing face masks and socially distancing – which wouldn’t be the case if they were free to spend their days in shopping malls and parks. What was it that, within such a very short time, convinced you of the exact opposite?

It was the fact that a curfew can and must be imposed. Because this means that they must be home not by midnight, but by eight o’clock in the evening, thus reducing the amount of time when our secondary school children could be somewhere other than at school or at home. We haven’t sent them on holiday, on vacation: there will be online teaching, and they’ll participate in that. And they must be home by eight in the evening. I also have a request for parents, which I make whenever I can. Youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18 are mature enough to talk to about difficult subjects, if necessary. I have five children, all of whom are old enough to have attended secondary school. This is the time to give them a talking to, if I may put it that way. Now one should find the time to have a serious conversation. I understand that young people feel invincible and that the world is at their feet. It’s also true that the young and the strong can weather the coronavirus with no more suffering or inconvenience than influenza. But their parents and grandparents won’t. If they’re infected by their children, they could become critically ill. And if a family loses a parent or grandparent to COVID, the loss is irreplaceable. I know that such talk is dark and somewhat bleak, but now we must speak to our children and ask them to heed this, and to recognise the importance of their decisions. It’s important that they understand their responsibility and adapt to this situation. I’m asking them and their parents to clearly recognise that whether or not we all survive this COVID pandemic and our families remain complete is now dependent on all of us.

Parents have enormous responsibility, as do teachers who are teaching face-to-face; there is incredible pressure on nursery school teachers and child carers in crèches. There are plans to give them a weekly rapid test that you yourself have said isn’t 100 per cent reliable. What are you expecting from this?

Let’s be blunt. If you take such a rapid test, a positive result indicates that it’s 90 per cent certain that you’re infected. But if this rapid test indicates that you’re not infected, then the certainty of that result is 50 to 60 per cent. It’s best for us to state this frankly. And even if you really aren’t infected after a test today, this doesn’t mean that you won’t have caught the virus from someone by tomorrow morning. So we must be cautious on the subject of testing. There are huge professional debates about this, about when and how often it should be done – not only in Hungary, but throughout Europe, and within the World Health Organization. There have been enormous debates in Slovakia, one of our neighbouring countries, where everyone was tested. I’m waiting for their conclusions on that, so that we can incorporate them into our own bank of experience. Today all we can do for crèche workers, nursery school teachers and those working in schools is provide these less reliable rapid tests – which, despite their lower reliability, do provide us with some information. This is all we can do, but we’ll do everything we can for our elementary and nursery school teachers.

The Left are proposing comprehensive testing. What do you think of that?

There’s fierce debate about that. I understand their position. Let’s wait and see what the results from Slovakia show; and until we have them we should do what we can, using common sense as our guide. We’ll not only test teachers, but all school workers. I’m waiting for reports now; and I think that we have enough rapid tests to also test those working in social care institutions once a week, so that even if we’re unable to give them maximum security, we can at least provide them with some.

Despite the fact that individual responsibility has perhaps never been as crucial as it is in these moments and days, the truth is that in the fight against the virus many people are battle-weary. How can we persuade people to take part, to cooperate? It’s certain that penalties are not the way – or at least not exclusively.

There’s a difference between being weary of something and dying of something. This is the most important thing. It’s not so difficult to understand this, and after all Hungarians are a people of culture, we’re an intelligent community. I think that even the weariest people can see this. So I place great trust in people appreciating the gravity of this situation. Although I’m sure that everyone has also had negative experiences, on the whole our experiences so far since March have been positive, confirming my faith in our own country and people. So as I see it we’re doing well, and we will pull through. I’m sure that rules in themselves are not enough, and the Government’s rigour is not enough in itself, so there’s also a need for…

Punishment also isn’t enough…

Punishment definitely isn’t. We need people’s discretion. But I think that it’s there, it can be brought out, and it will work. We’ve done it once, so why can’t we do it again, the second time round?

Perhaps this second wave is more difficult – but also easier, because we’ve learnt a lot from the experience of the first, but…

Yes, yes…

…to start all over again and subject ourselves to the same restrictions…

Of course, but there are two halves to every match.

Let’s hope that there are only two.

We must come out for the second half, too; after the first half, you know more about what awaits you in the second. It’s true that we may well be more tired, but we have more information. So there are plenty of arguments both for and against the proposal that we’ll cope with the second wave more easily. But there’s no doubt in my mind about one thing: I’m absolutely certain that we’re closer to a vaccine now than we were in the spring. A vaccine is now well within reach, and a vaccine is the solution. The enemy we’re confronted with is one that we must somehow kill. At the moment we’re only containing it, slowing it down and trying to avoid it; but the solution is to kill it. Only a vaccine will be able to help us in this, protecting us from further attacks, and eliminating the chances of that. This isn’t far off. As I see it, the situation today is easier in the sense that we must hold out until the vaccine arrives. In the spring we didn’t know how long we would have to hold out, and we could only hope. Back then such hope sprang more from general human optimism and nature. Now it also has a rational basis.

But one can’t ignore the question of how much longer we’ll have to wait. You’ve suggested that the arrival of a vaccine is imminent, by speaking about a timeframe of December or January. The media in Western Europe – for instance in Germany – is much more cautious, talking about April, the spring, or even late summer. This is a huge difference – especially if the pandemic keeps advancing at this rate. What is it that they don’t know but that we do – or that we know and they don’t?

This morning’s numbers from the stock market show signs of a change, because yesterday there were reports of a vaccine, and within moments this generated some optimism in economic life – even if only temporarily. And there was good reason for this optimism, because now there’s reliable news about a vaccine being well within reach. We’re talking about two dates. At the end of December or in January some form of vaccine will definitely arrive from the European Union – and perhaps also from elsewhere. In my judgement this will be enough to vaccinate doctors, nurses, hospital workers, law enforcement personnel and perhaps also patients who are most at risk. This vaccine will be in limited supply, but there will be some. The debate now is about whether there will be thirty, fifty, sixty or a hundred thousand doses. These will almost certainly come from the European Union. And I’m continuously juggling: every day, I spend hours trying to keep the Chinese, Russian and Israeli options in play, to keep those irons in the fire. And then there will be a date for mass supplies. For supplies from Europe that date won’t be any earlier than April. Large quantities could come from elsewhere, and until that time smaller quantities could trickle in from Europe. So I can tell you that there will be a partial relief around the end of December or in January, and that our liberation will be in April.

Please God! The coronavirus is not only attacking people’s health, but also, as you’ve mentioned, the fabric of the economy. In parallel with restrictions, you’ve also announced rescue measures for businesses. Financially this is an existential question for many workers, especially in tourism and the restaurant sector. How can these measures help them in the long run?

In the long run they won’t, but now the curfew and the restrictions will be in effect for one month. In two weeks’ time I’ll be able to tell you more about the results of these measures, the restrictions on movement and everything linked to them. If the results are good, and why wouldn’t they be, we could be free again some time around Christmas. I’m paying attention to how the Austrians are implementing this series of measures, but we will probably be able to follow them. So now we’re talking about hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities without income for thirty days. The assistance we’re offering is also for this thirty-day period. Once we’re through this, we’ll start the phase of relaunching the economy. I’ve had lengthy talks with the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I’ve already received several useful proposals from him, which I’ll present to the Government. I think we’ll receive new proposals, and after these thirty days we’ll be able to implement further general measures which will help not only the sectors most affected at present, but every sector of the economy – in the same way as we adopted timely measures in the spring, towards the end of the first wave. This is also the approach now: measures must not be adopted too quickly or too slowly, not too early or not too late, but at the right time. This is true both for health care and the economy. An action plan that will help everyone is already being prepared. For the coming thirty days we can help tourism and the operators of hotels and fitness centres, and in a month’s time we can help everybody.

Yes, in September we spoke about the fact that the Government must somehow strike a balance between maintaining the capacity of the healthcare system and keeping the country functioning: maintaining the functioning of the economy. In September the balance tipped somewhat towards the economy, and health care probably paid the price; now it’s time to focus more on health care. Aren’t you concerned that this could have serious long-term economic consequences?

This is quite a widespread interpretation, and it’s tempting to describe the situation in such simple terms, but I see it completely differently. In my view, this economy or health dichotomy is an oversimplification. It’s not about that: our job is not to regulate some facets of life such as the economy and health, but the whole of life as it is. The economy and health are one: we must live, we must survive, and if we’re ill we must recover; and meanwhile we must support our family, and we must give our children food. This is all part of the whole. I don’t want to regulate details, but to give people assistance so that they can live the life they want to – and this is a complete whole. So we’re not weighing one against the other, but trying to find a way to somehow help with the entirety. This is why, for instance, we’re closing secondary schools, but keeping elementary schools open as long as possible; because if we close elementary schools, obviously parents will have to stay at home – and if they have a job left at all this will change their working arrangements. And then the problems will start. This isn’t about the economy versus health, but about you, the whole human being, about all of us as we are. This is how we must survive. We must have jobs, we must have work, we must have an income, we must have money, we must have prospects for the future, and we must preserve our lives and our health. All of this must happen together.

You came here from Parliament, which has voted to give the Government extraordinary powers for a period of ninety days. Can we expect the Western European media to again report – as they did in the spring – that the Hungarian parliament has been closed down?

I think you also know the answer to that question, don’t you?

Yes. The answer is yes.

Youve worked quite a lot as a journalist abroad, and you’ve seen that nothing bad needs to happen in Hungary for them to find an excuse to spread negative news about us. This has a machinery, a mechanism. We can go back a long way in history to see how over there wells have been poisoned when it comes to Hungary. Our history is a long and stormy one, and we know what’s happening. In the coming days the Hungarian parliament will debate dozens of different bills, and also a constitutional amendment, and it’s obvious that Parliament is in session; but we can be sure that in many places in the West they’ll say that Parliament is no longer functioning, there’s a dictatorship, and Hungary is finished. But you also know this. This is a network. There are some who don’t like the present Hungarian government: it’s a sovereign government. There are many who are competing for this country: it’s a beautiful country, it has economic potential, and it has money which many people would like to pocket – taking it from the Hungarian people. I can list many countries throughout our history that have tried this. We live now in a global era, and this practice of skimming is being carried by extensive networks not linked to a single country. This network exists. I think you know – and even a babe in arms knows – that George Soros is at the centre of this. He is the spider, he weaves this web, and he tries to skim off that which the Hungarians have worked hard for. This is how it’s been up until now, and this continues to be true. They will work to assist into power in Hungary a government which will serve them. The present government is not of that ilk. We’ll do what we must do.

So we’ll refute these claims as we did in the spring?

We shall resist.

If we look at European disease control measures, we see that when it comes to combating pandemics the key isn’t always money. There’s the example of Switzerland, with a very strong healthcare system even by global standards and a high number of hospital beds as a proportion of the country’s population. Yet this still isn’t enough to enable them to successfully combat the pandemic. What do you think is the key factor enabling a country to mount a successful defence operation?

This really is true. Although I don’t like juggling with numbers, when I look at the European statistics in order to gain a realistic picture of infection numbers, I always focus on two figures expressed in relation to every one million inhabitants. For Hungary this number is 11,745, while the EU average is 18,188. As regards deaths, the figure for Hungary is 255 per million, compared with the EU average of 437. This is the context we must put Hungary in, and this is more or less where we are. Of course Switzerland isn’t a member of the European Union, but it provides a warning that money isn’t everything. But this is something that we’ve known since Commander Dobó: István Dobó told us that the strength of castle walls is in the souls of their defenders. So others may well be richer and have better equipment, but we have very good doctors and nurses, and quality, strength and performance in health care spring from the soul. This is something we all know. So Hungary has good reason to be very proud of its healthcare system and the people working in it. Even though we’re poorer than, say, Switzerland, it’s no accident that our numbers are better. I believe in a sense of community in a country, in how doctors work for us. Why do they work? Naturally they’re paid, but that’s not enough to explain why they work as hard as they do. They work because they’re Hungarians like us, and they want to restore us to health.

And there’s probably individual responsibility involved as well.

But I believe it’s more important that we’re all Hungarians: we have a very strong sense of belonging together, and we want to help each other, don’t we? I think this is the explanation. Hungarians pull together. Of course, we claim the opposite: that we pull in opposite directions. But just look at what happens in a crisis: we pull together in a healthcare crisis, in a migration crisis, and when there are floods. Families also pull together. This country is much better than we casually claim it is. And in my opinion, underlying the numbers is this quality of pulling together. This will bring us success when we’ve put all this behind us – because in the end we will pull through, and we will be victorious.

Thank you.