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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the TV2 programme “Facts”

Gábor Gönczi: I welcome Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, to the studio. Thank you for accepting our invitation. Good evening.

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me.

Major restrictions have been introduced from today. What was the objective reason, and what psychological threshold made the introduction of these measures necessary?

Let’s simply call the objective reasons facts or numbers. Experts, advisors, scientists and mathematicians have unanimously stated that without these measures it would be impossible to provide healthcare services safely and to adequate standards: we would run out of doctors and nurses. There are beds, there are face masks, there are supplies of personal protective equipment and there are ventilators. There are also doctors – but not in adequate numbers. The numbers showed that if everything continued as it has done so far, there would only be a 50 per cent chance of hospitals being able to cope with the pressure. Now that we’ve adopted these measures, there’s a 99.99 per cent chance. As regards psychology, I’m trying to gauge what it is that people themselves accept and regard as necessary, and what it is that they don’t. Because there’s no point in adopting rules and penalties if people don’t understand them, don’t accept them, don’t identity with them, and don’t assist in them. In that case even the best measures could turn to dust. Therefore, based on my perception of public opinion, let’s say, I took the view that now it’s possible to introduce measures imposing restrictions which are more rigorous than anything seen before in Hungarian history; or at least – because from today there’s a curfew from eight o’clock every evening until five the next morning – they’re more rigorous than anything seen in the past thirty years.

 Is it possible that earlier the numbers were already indicating that these restrictions should be imposed, but psychologically you felt that the time hadn’t yet arrived?

Every decision has its own culture and psychology. One tries to take into consideration as many objective criteria as possible. We’re fortunate in having these fine Austrians, our brothers-in-law, who at present are also functioning as a laboratory, because they’re still one week ahead of us. And as their numbers have been rising, I’ve been observing which number brought about which measure. Then I’ve tried to translate these observations to Hungary’s circumstances, and whenever I’ve seen that the time could be right to follow one of their decisions, I’ve called the Austrian chancellor, closely questioned him, and we’ve also adopted such a decision.

What condition is the healthcare system in at the moment? What will happen if the restrictions introduced from today take the pandemic curve in the right direction; and what will happen if a worse scenario emerges?

On the condition of the healthcare system, if that’s the question, I have to say that it’s in a heroic condition: doctors, nurses and other workers and assistants necessary for operation of hospitals are performing superhuman work. They’re human, too, their numbers are finite, and with these measures we’re making their work easier. If everything had continued as it has done up to now, after a while we’d very probably have been forced to capitulate. Staff would have fallen in the service of health care. What I’m saying sounds somewhat militaristic, but it’s the truth. Now that we’ve adopted these measures, however, we’ve also helped them; and as I see it they’ll be able to cope with the load and stand their ground. So they’re doing a heroic job. We can only talk about them in terms of gratitude and praise.

And will the virus comply with physics, chemistry and mathematics? Do these disciplines allow for any bad scenarios? Will we head in the right direction if we enforce and follow these rules to the letter?

We – and particularly the elderly – are in trouble, and so I want to ask everyone to take especially good care of their mothers, fathers and grandparents – because the older people are, the more at risk they are from the virus. But the virus itself isn’t in an easy situation, because now a vaccine is on the horizon, and once we have it, we’ll deliver the virus a knockout blow, rather than the other way round: we’ll be able to protect ourselves against the virus. Today we’re not yet able to protect ourselves, but we already have medicines which help in overcoming the effects of the virus: we’ve procured such medicines, and supplies are being procured continuously. These aren’t cures, but they make the progress of the disease more bearable. We have medicines used in hospital treatment, and we also have medicines for patients to use at home – people who have been infected but don’t need hospitalisation.

Yes, just yesterday we saw an enormous consignment of a medicine – favipiravir – arriving in the country.

I can describe this to you and the viewers because I saw it with my own eyes, and with my own hands…

Yes, and we saw that you saw it. Will this amount be enough, or will it be delivered continuously?

No, it will be enough for now, but we’ll need further consignments in the future. We’ve ordered them, and they’ll be delivered.

As regards the defence operation, Western European countries richer than us aren’t doing as well as we are. Why do you think this is?

It hinges on the quality of people: we have very good doctors and nurses. I think that we all have fond memories of doctors from our childhood. So historically also, Hungarian doctors have always been like this. Naturally, they also need money to be able to live, and from time to time they’ve accepted gratuity payments in plain envelopes. I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know how life works. But in Hungary when we think of doctors – certainly when members of my generation do – we think of people whose sole priority is to restore us to health. And we’ve always felt that they didn’t simply want to restore us to health, but that they had compassion for us: they wanted to help, they saw us as being in distress – indeed as other Hungarians in distress – and they wanted to help. I think this is a cast of mind. Despite today’s modern world, with its business and money, despite a great many things having changed since we were young, the world hasn’t changed enough to erase this mentality among the community of Hungarian doctors. Our doctors are faithful to the oath they swore when they embarked on their profession.

And now, in fact, we must prevent our heroes being exposed to excessive burdens, mustn’t we? Because we have equipment, we have tablets, we have hospital beds, and we have ventilators.

And they’re also human, and they may also contract this disease. So I must also pay attention to that set of figures. I know that behind the numbers there are people, but I see numbers and follow them. I see how many doctors and nurses have been infected in the course of their work, and the number isn’t low. I think it’s lower than in many Western European countries, but it’s not low. So it’s not only true that they’re working very hard and are giving their all, but in the meantime they may also fall ill. So I salute them.

Let’s talk a little about the restrictions, and some important aspects of them. Many people argue that elementary schools and kindergartens should also be closed – or they’re certainly raising questions related to this. At the same time, we know full well that many parents dread this, saying that it’s the last thing that should happen.

Let’s say that public opinion on this displays a variety of contradictory views at the same time. I’m also trying to survey these opinions and understand them. Some people are very frightened, and would like to keep their children at home, but I believe that the majority – a very large majority – think that the country must remain functioning throughout the defence operation. For them this means that they’ll be able to go to work. Just as Members of Parliament or the Prime Minister must work, everyone believes that they must be able to go to work if they don’t want to lose their jobs, if they want to earn a living, and if they want to support their families. If we keep young children and toddlers at home, then someone must stay at home with them, and only the very rich can afford childcare in their homes. This would prevent most people going to work, and people don’t want that. If later the majority of people want this, we’ll make it possible, but I believe that right now they want fate, God, the rules and good fortune to combine to enable us to defend ourselves and stay alive, to be sure of recovery if we fall ill, and meanwhile for them to be allowed to keep working, to live their lives and for the country to keep functioning. This is the balance I must maintain. I believe that this is a personal responsibility I have been privileged with.

In the meantime parents must come to an agreement with their children, whatever their age, because children can bring the virus into the home. This is obviously another borderline which is very difficult to define. How can I explain to my children what they can and cannot do?

Being a parent is a beautiful thing, but sometimes it’s difficult. This depends on one’s own character, and it’s something we must sort out for ourselves: there’s no outside help. Of course we’re two men, but in this area children should mostly rely on their mothers.

Fine. Wearing face masks. Do you think people have now understood that they must wear masks everywhere, and must observe all the rules related to this? Generally speaking we see that they have, but we hear about – and we here on our show have spoken about – a lot of unfortunate incidents, with incompliant service providers being heavily fined for this or that. Only yesterday I was annoyed to see how many “last night” parties were going on, how many parties were being held in restaurants on the pretext that no such revelry will be allowed for a while. It was a sad sight.

I was also left scratching my head.

Because this isn’t what all this is about.

Yes, this isn’t about going on a long holiday, and seeing each other for one last time before setting out. This isn’t such a moment: this is a difficult and trying moment, that is sad rather than joyful. So I was also somewhat surprised at these “farewell gatherings”. But let’s take a look at our country from a distance. We’ve always known that we’re not perfect, and that living here are people with diverse outlooks and ways of thinking. There are those who are law-abiding and disciplined, and there are those who are less so. This is also the case now. The question now is whether we who are law-abiding, disciplined and have a greater sense of our personal responsibility will be able to convince those fellow citizens of ours who are less like us – to put it politely. I don’t want to attack or criticise those who aren’t like us, but instead I wish us the strength to convince them to realise that in the coming month – we’re talking about one month – they should follow the same path and the same behaviour as the majority. Hungarians are an intelligent breed, however, so I’m optimistic.

Do you think it will be possible to come to some agreement with the police? If, say, someone is caught in the street at nine o’clock at night without a face mask, something they could be fined for, could they say: “Look, officer, I can’t pay this 100,000-forint fine.”

If there’s an indicator for humaneness, I think that the attitude of the police and their ability to embrace democratic rules have greatly improved in comparison with how things were in the eighties, when we were beaten with batons in the street and motorcycle police ran their Yamahas into us. And the police are now also more humane and citizen-friendly than in 2006, when mounted police beat citizens with blunted sabres. At the same time, a police officer is a police officer, and they must enforce the rules. They can agree with you, they can help you, but if you cross a line they must tell you that there’s no excuse, and that there will be a penalty. It’s good if our police officers are humane, but they mustn’t be soft. They must be tough, clear and unambiguous. We can help our police officers’ work by creating clear rules which they can easily enforce and that they themselves can follow. The latest rules are clear, and they give police the assistance they need in that regard. In the spring we saw that the police stood their ground, and I think they did their job to the public’s satisfaction. Now they will also be accompanied by military personnel, because it will be necessary to patrol the streets at night…

Yes, it’s breaking news that military assistance has also been requested. How should we see this?

There will be joint patrols. Each patrol will feature police officers and military personnel – armed soldiers. They must be in mixed patrols because, according to the rules of Hungarian constitutional order, only police officers – and not military personnel – may act against civilians for law enforcement purposes. At the same time, soldiers – armed soldiers especially – can provide support and assistance to the police. But only police officers can take action in relation to members of the public. This is also why there are joint service units at our borders. The situation would be different if there was a war or a state of emergency. In that situation soldiers would be given the powers they would need to take action. But this isn’t a war or a state of emergency: this is a state of danger, in which law enforcement officers – police officers – play the leading role.

Let’s talk a little about the vaccine. We’ve been reading ever more about it and we know ever more about it. Prime Minister, can we already say that there’s a vaccine that’s effective against the coronavirus? So there’s already a vaccine that will definitely conquer the coronavirus – except that it’s not yet in the final stages of licensing or production, or isn’t yet available in large enough quantities.

I’ll try to answer your question as simply as possible. There’s still no vaccine that has already cleared all four prescribed hurdles. There are several vaccines which have already cleared three of the four hurdles, which have already passed three of the four required tests. In the present situation the question is when these vaccines will clear the fourth hurdle. As I see it, the vaccines manufactured in the European Union will take this fourth step – the fourth step of development – some time in January. There’s a good chance that the Russians and the Chinese will also do this, and we’re in contact with all three: the European Union, Russia and China. The happiest or most liberating feeling would be to have a variety of vaccines at our disposal. The vaccine – or vaccination – will be voluntary not compulsory, and people could decide which one they trusted most and which one they would like to use. But the truth is that whichever vaccine it will be, at the end of December and in January only limited supplies will be available.

Is this completely certain?

It’s absolutely certain, because this is the essence of the agreements we’ve concluded with the European Union. We’ll need hundreds of millions of vaccines, because there are more than 400 million of us in the European Union, and every patient will probably need not one dose but two, depending on the vaccine. So I can venture to say that in the European Union we’ll need hundreds of millions of vaccines. Hundreds of millions of vaccines will only become available in April or May. This is why I’m saying that at the end of December and in January there will be some relief, because there will be some vaccines available then, and we’ll be liberated from this situation at some point in April. At least this is how I’m planning the months ahead.

We don’t have to wait too long for the first item of good news, and sure enough, it will bring some relief; but it won’t really be much comfort for the country as a whole. And meanwhile we’ll have two very important holidays – Christmas and New Year’s Eve – and I think everybody wants to know what will happen. When do you think the restrictions introduced now will make their effect felt, and when can we decide about the holidays, which aren’t far off now?

 It will take at least two weeks before we feel the effects of the restrictions. Austria is our reconnaissance unit, and we’re following them. When I last spoke to him at length, the Austrian chancellor told me – and tomorrow I’ll also speak with the German chancellor – that in his view their measures will produce the first results in two weeks’ time. Their measures are similar, and therefore it’s right for us to make the same calculation. As regards Christmas – and there will be Christmas, because this year, too, Jesus Christ will be born on Christmas Eve…

But how many of us can be together around the table at Christmas?

The question is how many of us can be together in moments of celebration. I can’t honestly and responsibly answer that question with any degree of certainty, but if you invite me back in two weeks’ time, I could give you an answer then. Today I can only express hope or talk about hope. There are other countries which are also defending themselves well: while there are countries which are in a worse state than us, there are others which are fighting at least as well as we are. I hope that, just like some of those other countries in Europe, Hungary will also be able to have family Christmas celebrations with fewer restrictions than we now have to live with in our lives. I worded my answer very cautiously, because I don’t want to promise that…

Yes, but for me this was quite a positive answer.

Yes, but I don’t want to…

I can already smell Christmas dinner!

But I don’t want to make a promise that I won’t be able to keep. So it’s better if I talk directly and cautiously. In two weeks’ time I’ll be able to say whether there can be larger family gatherings of more than ten people at Christmas. I can’t answer this question any sooner than that, but I firmly hope so.

A brief question. Businesses can perhaps hold out for a month, and they’ll also receive assistance. But if a negative scenario emerged, will they be able to survive the period leading into the spring?

They will if we do things well, if there’s a vaccine. We can make this one month tolerable for hotels, leisure businesses and restaurants. What we’re offering now is not the solution, but only a means to help these people survive. Soon, however, we’ll adopt decisions which will increase businesses’ chances of staying afloat, of surviving, and even of strengthening in the months ahead. I’m in consultations about these measures, and there are some good proposals. In essence we want to reduce taxes, we want to leave more money in people’s wallets and purses so that they themselves can solve their problems in ways that are best for their businesses. But we always focus on the fact that every business must be kept alive in order to prevent it from laying off people and in order for it to provide jobs for people who will in turn be able to support their families. So we’re not moving away from the idea of a workfare economy, even in a time of crisis management.

Prime Minister, you’ve asked me to invite you back in two weeks’ time. I’d be delighted to do so. I look forward to finding out how events unfold.

Thank you for inviting me.

Thank you for accepting our invitation.