Katalin Nagy: More than thirty thousand people have been vaccinated. Yesterday saw the first vaccinations of residents and staff in social care institutions. I welcome to the studio Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who’s come here this morning from a meeting of the Operational Group. What were the Operational Group’s recommendations? What decisions should the Government take on the current restrictions?
Good morning to you and your listeners. To be exact, according to the Operational Group’s report this morning, we have so far vaccinated 42,549 healthcare workers. Initially there were some reservations, but now this seems to be changing. I see that reservations about the vaccine are also continuously diminishing in other countries. This is how we’ve got to the point of being able to start vaccination of residents in care homes for the elderly, and at the weekend we’ll be able to vaccinate seniors in all institutions with more than 150 residents. Experience to date indicates that approximately 80 per cent of such care home residents want to be vaccinated, while the corresponding figure for care home workers is only 50 per cent; so I think we should make more of an effort to convince them. Despite that, I’m also a little uncertain; after all, this is a personal decision. But I’d like to reassure everyone that the vaccines are safe and necessary. I’m asking them to consider being vaccinated, and to decide to go ahead, rather than refuse it. I myself will be vaccinated when it’s my turn: I also have a designated place in the vaccination plan, and when we get to that point you’ll see that I’ll go ahead with it. So far enough doses for eighty thousand people have arrived in the country. This isn’t enough, so the Operational Group has decided to extend the measures which are now placing restrictions on our lives up until 1 February. Every life matters, and the pandemic is still strong. At the moment I believe we’ve curbed it, but it still represents a major threat. In secondary schools online education will continue, and then somewhere around 1 February we’ll see where we stand. We’re surrounded by international news reports that more virulent strains of the virus have come into being or have mutated from this virus, and so clearly this could also result in more rapid infection rates in Hungary. So we don’t know precisely what will happen. What we do know is that now we have a system that we’ve been operating for several months. Our crisis management method is different from that in the West. As you can see, over there they are introducing this measure and that measure every week, and one can hardly keep up with exactly what restrictions are in effect. We haven’t chosen that path, because we believed that predictability builds trust. So there’s a set of restrictions, a curfew, and so on.
So they’ll remain in effect, will they?
The present restrictions will stay in place until 1 February. Elementary schools and kindergartens will stay open, while online education will continue for secondary schools. Predictability is at least as important as effectiveness. We don’t want to keep chopping and changing the rules as we see happening in several countries where the measures are effectively following every day’s latest infection data. I believe in having in place a set of effective restrictive measures that appear to work well, maintaining them until there are enough vaccines, and adjusting our lives accordingly, to be able to live under such circumstances.
The pressure on the healthcare system has perhaps reduced somewhat. We’ve heard reports that doctors and nurses who were eagerly looking forward to being vaccinated feel relieved and calmer now that they have been. When do you think the pressure on the healthcare system will ease?
According to the Operational Group’s report, this morning there were 5,297 people in hospital, including 372 needing assisted ventilation. There were 2,907 new infections and 115 deaths. The healthcare system has been put under more pressure than this in the past, but this pressure is high enough. So more than five thousand people in hospital, and 115 have died. Every one of them has a family, relatives, a father, a mother, children. So this is a great loss for the country. I see debates about what figure would be high and what would be low. For me even one is too many. But now that 2020 is behind us, we have a relatively certain international benchmark for comparison. Every country keeps different records of fatalities caused in some way by the COVID infection: there are some which only register as COVID deaths those people who have died as a direct consequence of COVID infection; meanwhile there are others, including Hungary, which register as COVID deaths every person who dies while infected – even if they didn’t die of COVID as the direct cause. Therefore it’s difficult to make comparisons. Now that 2020 is over, we have an opportunity to estimate the total number of people who died in 2020 in one country or another – including in Hungary. This is what I’m looking at. We also know how many people died in 2019. And so, with some minor adjustments, we can regard the difference between those two figures as the number of COVID deaths. If when we started dealing with the crisis someone had told me that in this regard the Hungarian state would do better – would be more effective – than countries like Belgium, Italy, Spain, Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden or France, I would have settled for that. But this doesn’t mean that this is any kind of success; in this context we can’t use the word “success” as long as a single person dies whose life could have been saved if he or she had been able to receive the vaccine. Victory, final victory, is within our grasp now: it is the vaccine, and we must obtain it. Although in the EU we’ve agreed to wait for them to send it, this is so painfully slow that rather than waiting I think we must procure our own supplies of vaccine. We must lay our hands on all the tested vaccines, all the vaccines that have been tried and tested in other countries. So in addition to Western countries, we’re also negotiating with the Israelis, the Chinese and the Russians, to see if we can get access to some vaccines from those sources. It’s not easy, because there are countries – large countries, but I won’t mention them by name now – where vaccine is being manufactured in large quantities, but which won’t allow any vaccine out of the country until they’ve vaccinated their own citizens. And let’s face it, this is something we can hardly criticise. It’s logical behaviour.
Is that an EU country?
No. In the EU the problem is that we’ve all joined a queue. We’ve applied for 17 million doses; so we’ve placed an order for enough doses for the vaccination of 8.5 million people. The centre – Brussels – conducted some negotiations, and now here we are, sitting and waiting for the vaccine to come. But everyone finds this frustrating. I can see the debates over this in Italy and Germany, and it’s not good for us either. When there’s trouble I myself prefer not to wait around, but to take action. So I’ve sent our representatives out to try and obtain vaccines from wherever they can – from China to Russia and Israel.
Boris Johnson has said that they’ve already vaccinated as many people in Britain as have been vaccinated across the whole of the European Union. And we’ve seen all sorts of reports in the press about the fact that, under pressure from Germany, Brussels said, “Fine, let’s wait for the Anglo-French vaccine”. This is why they only decided to sign a contract with Pfizer later: not in the summer when they should have, but only in November.
Hungarians are a generous and chivalrous people, so we don’t find it hard to admire other people’s achievements. We’re not envious. Maybe we were during communism, but we’re recovering from that. I think envy is a communist disease. But I believe that we can congratulate the British – we’ve got to recognise that they’re skilful.
But where are the European manufacturers and developments? Why are they lagging behind?
We shall ask that question in Brussels.
If we get an answer. We’ve spoken about the fact that willingness to be vaccinated appears to be on the increase. One million people have already registered, electronically over the internet or by post – people over the age of 65. Doctors say that in order to achieve some noticeable results at least three million people will need to be vaccinated.
What are our calculations? To my mind, logic dictates – and this is in the vaccination plan – that the people who should be vaccinated first are those who could die of the virus. Because while of course it’s not pleasant to have to spend days in bed, with headaches and all sorts of symptoms – and those who’ve had the virus know that it’s not pleasant – this isn’t comparable to someone dying of it. Therefore we must give top priority to those who are most at risk. And once we’ve managed to vaccinate everyone who’s in direct danger – because they suffer from a chronic illness, or they’re elderly and are therefore naturally at risk – we’ll have effectively fulfilled our most important duty: we’ll have saved the life of everyone that we could save. Assuming, of course, that they agree to be vaccinated. If they don’t agree to be vaccinated, then naturally they bear that risk themselves. Our responsibility is to procure as many vaccines as are needed to enable the voluntary vaccination of everyone who is most at risk. Every life matters, and we must look out for one another. We’re not there yet; at present we can’t vaccinate everyone who is at risk of dying as a result of the virus. This is why I continue to ask everyone to observe the rules and to look out for one another – especially for the vulnerable and the elderly. In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget to also see heroism in this battle: the magnificence of doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. How many times has our healthcare system been written off? The healthcare system is made up of people, the people who work there: nurses, specialist nurses, doctors and professors. And how many times have we heard that our healthcare system is bad in this way, that way or another? Yet the quality of a healthcare system depends most of all on the quality of the people who work in it. And we have every reason to be proud of our doctors and nurses, because the results speak for themselves and the numbers are perfectly clear: they’ve saved a huge number of lives and have eased the suffering of huge numbers of people, helping them to pull through the disease more swiftly and to recover. Similarly, few months ago who would have thought that the Hungarian educational system would be able to change over to online teaching? But today this is how secondary schools are operating. Others tend not to have a very high opinion of our teachers – or at least I often hear criticisms. But there’s nothing wrong with the education system. The question is whether one has a good teacher or a bad teacher, or whether they provide teaching that links in with that from their fellow teachers or is merely isolated knowledge. What we’re observing now is that the teachers – who are often disparaged as part of the education system – have changed over smoothly and are doing an excellent job. And on the subject of discipline, just look at how many countries have had demonstrations against lockdown measures, disturbances, all sorts of mini-uprisings and the like. While Hungarians aren’t happy with these restrictions, and perhaps some of them don’t even agree with them, compared with other countries everyone has understood that we must exercise some kind of order to have a chance of getting through this difficult period with a minimum of losses. Hungarians’ ability to see reason, and their general capacity to pull together is outstanding in a European context. So we have plenty of problems, there is misery, difficulty and there are also deaths, and the number of new infections is still above two thousand; but at the same time let’s recognise that the way the country keeps on fighting is something remarkable.
Going back to just one thing regarding the vaccine. The Hungarian government is being continually attacked from Brussels – and also the Hungarian left – for having talks with Russia and China about vaccines. Yet in the meantime we’ve read in the press recently that Chancellor Merkel is also in talks with Putin about the manufacture of a joint vaccine.
Well, if we just wait and do nothing, our present vulnerability will continue. Let me repeat this: from Italy all the way to Germany I hear people crying out, in what we should call frustration. There are even some very serious internal political debates about why – instead of each country obtaining the necessary supplies of vaccines themselves – we agreed to leave this to Brussels, to a coordination mechanism. Brussels is negotiating, it’s striking deals, but we don’t know exactly what’s going on. We trusted them to do a better job than we could. This is why we must congratulate the British, who have left the EU: they didn’t leave it to Brussels, but they negotiated for themselves, and now they’re in better shape than we are, defending ourselves through Brussels. And this isn’t a Hungarian problem, it’s not an East-West, Central Europe-Western Europe problem – it’s become a highly controversial issue in Western European countries. This is particularly true in countries with manufacturing capacities that are larger than those we have in Hungary. In those countries people are asking themselves why they didn’t solve their own problems themselves. And although now is not the time for it, this debate will lead back to the underlying issue that the only powers that should be delegated to Brussels are those which we can be sure they can handle better than we could ourselves. It’s absolutely clear that the policy which in recent years has wished for, demanded and applauded every power being transferred to Brussels is a bad policy. There are some things that should be dealt with through Brussels, and others which should be dealt with on a national basis. And far more should be done at national level than we are doing at present. Some of the powers should be restored to the nation states. At least, this is what the present vaccine issue convinces me of.
The latest employment and unemployment data has just been released. How do you assess this? The Left, the Opposition, have been claiming that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs during the crisis.
What they’re saying isn’t true. Naturally I’m concentrating on the virus and that’s what dominates my waking hours, but in the meantime we must also pay attention to the economy. We’ve adopted dozens of economic decisions, the results of which are visible. There are many different types of statistical data about the labour market, but the truth is that there’s just one figure that I trust, and I recommend that everyone else uses it as a point of reference or compass: the number of people in work in Hungary today. In Hungary today there are 4.496 million people in work. This is 26,000 fewer than before the crisis, so today the number of jobs that have been lost stands at 26,000. If one juggles statistics it’s possible to say many things, but anyone who contradicts this isn’t talking about reality or real life. This is the most important question, and this is what determines the success or outcome of the management of the crisis. There are very few countries in the world which have led their economies through this virus pandemic while only losing 26,000 jobs out of 4.5 million. What’s more, we’ll get these jobs back, because by November we’d already regained many jobs. This is how we stand at present. And I think that we’ll not only get back to the earlier number of jobs, but we’ll increase that number: we’ll create more jobs than were destroyed by the virus. We’ve supported hundreds of job-creating investments, launched a home creation programme and started an enormous state investment programme. We’re putting enormous energy – as I am myself – into preparing for the months after the pandemic. Because we – and I – don’t just want to beat back the crisis: I want 2021 to be an exceptionally good year for the Hungarian people. The first month or two will be a rough ride, but after that we’ll need to fire the booster rockets. To borrow a phrase from the governor of our central bank, I want Hungary to overtake on the bend – meaning that we should come out of the economic crisis overtaking countries which earlier were ahead of us in terms of competitiveness and overall performance. In other words, I don’t only want us to return to where we were before the crisis, but to make 2021 an exceptionally good year. There’s a realistic chance of that happening.
Yes, but how? We can see that earlier tourism accounted for 11 to 13 per cent of GDP, but now – as you’ve said – it’s been flattened. So there’s no tourism. And one of the criticisms from the Left is that the Government should be supplementing wages, instead of spending money on what they see as unnecessary projects.
There’s a philosophy which seeks to promote consumption at times like this; and there’s another approach which seeks to promote investment. I believe in investment – especially when we’ve lost 26,000 jobs out of 4.5 million. At times like this, it’s better to support investment. If there was a massive decline, with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs, then naturally we should also provide wage support. But I’d just observe that we’re providing furlough funding in those sectors which are in distress now – in the tourism and hospitality industry, for instance. But while we’re not disregarding wage support, on the whole the main direction is support for investment; because investment creates jobs, businesses are able to provide people with jobs, and it is businesses which are investing. We haven’t abandoned a single one of our major plans: we’re reintroducing the “thirteenth month’s” pension, for which we’ll pay the first one-week instalment in early February; we’ve launched the biggest ever home creation support programme; and the many hundreds of investments will also start bearing fruit. So I’m almost certain that by the end of 2021 we’ll see that the Hungarian crisis management scheme has – let’s be modest – an extremely good chance of being ranked among those which were successful and effective. This is still ahead of us. I know that today people can’t see this and don’t look at things from this angle, because – and I repeat – for me, too, the focus is on the virus; 80 per cent of my working time is taken up with thoughts, actions, decisions and analysis of that. Therefore people don’t see the enormous volume of economic measures that we’ve adopted in recent weeks. But later in 2021 they will see it.
Despite the fact that the restrictions will remain in place?
There’s no doubt that when we’re able to lift the restrictions that will have an impact on the degree of success. This is dependent on the vaccine. The economic results will be different depending on whether we’re able to restore life to normal, say, at the beginning of March, at the beginning of April, or if it’s only possibly in May. So while at present the vaccine is essentially a health issue, it will also be a critical determinant for economic results in 2021.
How should we view what we’ve seen in America? While the presidential election process was being brought to a conclusion, some people broke into the Capitol Building, the seat of the legislative branch, and four people died. What’s your view on this?
First of all, we offer our condolences to the families of those who died. This is the human side of the story. Looking at it from a political angle, I recommend that we continue pursuing the foreign policy we’ve followed so far – meaning that we don’t judge any other country. We don’t like being judged, and in consequence we don’t judge other countries; and neither will we interfere in what’s happening in America now. That is for Americans to deal with. We’re rooting for them, and we sincerely hope that they’re successful in solving their own problems. I’m saying this as a leader, or prime minister, who knows these problems. The thing is that we’re not immediately reminded of how the Left tried its hand at violence in Hungary. I remember the siege of the Parliament Building here. I remember how the police had to defend the Hungarian parliament building from a violent left-wing mob, which included opposition politicians. We also know that there’s one party leader who had to stand trial for throwing a smoke grenade at the police at one of those demonstrations. So we’re familiar with what’s going on in America now.
You mean in December 2018?
I don’t remember which year it was. But now I’m not taking about the siege of Fidesz party headquarters, and incidents like that: I’m only talking about Parliament. So groups trying to use violence against Parliament is something that the Hungarians have experienced first-hand; America isn’t the first place I’ve seen that. Back then, we took the view that we Hungarians would sort out the situation. I hope that the Americans will do so as well.
There were no deaths in Hungary, and the police managed to resolve the situation with endless patience.
I don’t want to get too nostalgic, but Hungarian police officers had to put up with severe provocation. If people are interested, it’s well worth reading about it all again, and they’ll see that Hungarian police officers did a superb job. In general I can say that Hungarian police officers are in good shape. They could earn more, but they have a career system, they’re relatively young, and also recently they stood their ground exceptionally well when they had to restrain a man who injured a police officer. So I have to say that today when we think of law and order in Hungary we think of our police officers, and I’m sure that by European standards we think highly of the performance and quality of our own police force.
There’s one thing I forgot. The Moderna vaccine is expected to arrive here next week. Will supplies of that vaccine also arrive in Hungary on a weekly basis?
There’s a timetable for which manufacturer’s vaccine will be delivered in what quantities in which month. These are small numbers, so they’re not heartening. But every manufacturer always adds that there could be more than this or there could be less, because no one can guarantee that they’ll deliver exactly as much as they promise. So I don’t think we should tie ourselves down to this or that number or fact, but instead we’ll chase around the globe to try and procure additional vaccines. One thing, however, is certain: if we rely solely on Western vaccines, we’ll have to maintain the restrictions for much longer – for several months. If we find safe, tried and tested vaccines elsewhere – Israel, China or Russia – we’ll be able to accelerate this process. But relying entirely on Western vaccines won’t work.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.