Katalin Nagy: The EU summit lasted until quite late last night. The heads of state and government met in a video conference, primarily focusing on vaccine procurement. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Were there any EU Member State leaders who didn’t call Brussels to account over the somewhat dismal procurement of vaccines? How do you see that?
Good morning, and a very good morning to your listeners. Voters don’t get to see such meetings, so they have little direct information about the internal culture of politics in Brussels. To a Hungarian it seems rather strange, but I’ve worked in that area for over ten years, so I’ve attended a large number of meetings. In Hungarian culture, when we start talking about a task, first we name the problem and the causes, and next we discuss how to fix the problem. Today is the Day of Hungarian Culture and Language. The nation lives in its language, and this is also the basis of our culture. The Hungarian language gets to the heart of a problem. This isn’t allowed in Brussels, where one must do things differently – in a way more reminiscent of the culture of the French royal court. People compete to be seen to speak more politely, more generously, more elegantly and more positively about ourselves and the EU. So over there one can’t begin by saying that we have a problem and we should solve it. Instead one must talk at length about how good and fine the European Union is, and how we would all be much worse off if it didn’t exist. Once this has been discussed, only then – like at some royal reception – we can touch upon the problems, at a variety of depths. For a Hungarian this whole situation is a little frustrating, but God knows we’re not all the same. We are 27 countries with 27 different cultures. We have to accept that we must do our job in this linguistic context. This is also what we had to do yesterday. I could have used some Hungarian straight-talking to confront them with the unvarnished truth. I could have said how good it is that we’re doing our job and giving positive reports on what’s happening, while adding that far more people have been vaccinated in Britain, far more people have been vaccinated in Israel, more people have been vaccinated in Russia, and more people have been vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine. I could have reminded them that meanwhile here in Europe we have very many patients and deaths; and I could have advised that we face up to the fact that collectively we’ve mishandled things, and recognise that something’s not right. Well, that’s not possible. Instead, we had to raise the question that the Polish prime minister asked on behalf of the V4. Yesterday he spoke on our behalf, asking why the AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t good enough for the Europeans, despite being good enough for the British – because in Britain several million people have already been vaccinated with it, and there it received a licence two months ago. He asked why the authorities in Brussels haven’t issued a licence for that vaccine. He pointed out that it’s one thing for the authorities to be reluctant to issue a licence for the Chinese and Russian vaccines on political and ideological grounds – together with possible business interests and conflicts; but this is a vaccine approved by a British authority, by a Western authority. And vaccine is life. This isn’t about sophistry or technical issues, because lives depend on it. The sooner we have vaccines, the more lives we can save. Every life matters.
And was there an answer to that?
There’s always an answer. Yesterday we found out why this process is making such slow progress. I’m not a discourteous person, and I thought it best not to angrily overturn the table, but my view is that Hungarians and I need vaccines, not explanations. And if vaccines aren’t coming from Brussels, we must obtain them from elsewhere. European unity is a fine thing, and I value it highly. It’s also important to help one another, and to keep to our agreements. But one cannot allow Hungarians to die, simply because Brussels is too slow in procuring vaccines. This is absolutely unacceptable. We must have enough vaccine! There was a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, in which we gave full authority in these matters to the Foreign Minister. He’s in Moscow today. The authorities have issued a licence for the AstraZeneca vaccine which is being used in Britain, and they’ve also issued a licence for the Russian vaccine. They’re currently examining the Chinese vaccine. We need vaccines because they mean life. I’ll underline this again: every life matters, and the vaccine is the key.
Brussels has signed agreements, including with Pfizer. But now Pfizer isn’t supplying countries with the quantities they promised. Will there be consequences for this?
We said some sharp things on this, stressing that manufacturers must keep to their agreements, and so on. But, you know, this is like economic policy: you can implore someone, you can call on them to do something, but the only thing that will force them to do the right thing is competition. If we only license one or two vaccines, that will not create a competitive situation. It’s best if we license as many as possible. That will galvanise manufacturers into action, because if they don’t supply us, someone else will. And if someone else supplies us, the other manufacturers will lose that business opportunity. I don’t fully understand the economic considerations behind vaccine procurement. All I see – and I’ll repeat this – is that some companies have millions of doses of vaccines sitting in their warehouses, and Brussels isn’t issuing a licence. Meanwhile the same active ingredient is already being administered in Canada, Israel and Britain. What’s more, this vaccine is much cheaper than the one already being distributed. From the distance we are at – after all, Brussels is 1,300 kilometres from here – we don’t have a clear picture of the links between these facts, as to whether there are economic competitive relations between these pharmaceutical companies, and whether these might somehow have an impact on political decision-making. The one thing we know is that we don’t really care – in Hungary we should have access to as many vaccines as possible. I came here from a meeting of the Operational Group, where we started work this morning. There, too, what I said was, “Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines!”
Yes, but Brussels always threatens everyone about respecting the transparency of agreements, and now they’re the ones refusing to allow them to be seen by, say, Members of the European Parliament. But let’s return to what you mentioned about the Hungarian health authority licensing the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines. Won’t this be a problem? At the same time – and this may have surprised the European Commission and EU leaders – Angela Merkel has said that she’d like to help with the approval and licensing of the latter. So Germany would assist the process.
Indeed, the Germans are negotiating with the Russians. This is an old story, and it benefits them. But I also hope that they’ll come to some kind of arrangement. I don’t want to get into a tug of war with Brusseleers – because, to be honest, this is a political tug of war. Now this isn’t about politics, however, but about people’s lives and about Hungary. Later, when this whole crisis is behind us, we can come back to the question of whether it was a wise decision for Member States to agree to centralised negotiation and procurement, instead of each country dealing with these matters itself. There could be different views on that, and we can talk about it, but right now we don’t have the time. We can do that afterwards. And later we should also discuss whether Brussels acted well or badly, and where responsibility lies. This isn’t something we should discuss now, because here we have a problem that must be solved. The Hungarian position is very clear: it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. That is what I’m interested in. This is our way of thinking. This is the essence of the Hungarian position.
How many AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines might Hungary receive? Is it possible that Hungary will be the first country in the European Union to receive supplies from AstraZeneca?
Regarding the Russian vaccine, Péter Szijjártó is in Moscow today. We have a skilful foreign minister, who’s agile, determined and dynamic. So I trust that today he’ll conduct successful negotiations, and we’ll procure the largest possible amounts of vaccine. Our negotiations with the Chinese are at an advanced stage, but the Chinese will only start supplying vaccines when a licence is issued under emergency provisions. This is what the Serbs have already issued, and so inoculations with that vaccine are already happening in Serbia. Hungarians have already been inoculated with the Chinese vaccine, because as we speak Hungarians in Vojvodina are being vaccinated. This helps us to the extent that we can go over there and check what’s happening, and we can consult them. So instead of going all the way from Budapest to Beijing to see what’s happening, it’s enough for us to hop over to Vojvodina, go to the Serbian authorities in Belgrade and get information from them first-hand. We’re doing just that. We’ve issued a licence for AstraZeneca. There have been offers, and negotiations are ongoing.
So when these vaccines arrive, they’ll contribute to the start of mass vaccination?
I think everybody appreciates that we can’t lift the restrictions until mass vaccination starts. I think we’ve learnt this together. Clearly the second wave of the pandemic hit us hard, and we were forced to mobilise major forces to curb it. We’ve done this, and I can give you the Operational Group’s latest figures for today: there are 1,311 new infections; the number of deaths is below 100, standing at 98; and 3,959 people are in hospital, 274 of whom are on assisted ventilation. This is the report for today at 6 a.m. We’ve vaccinated 138,983 people and around 250,000 have already recovered from the infection. This means that there are around 400,000 people who count as being immune, as they’ve been vaccinated or have been registered as recovering from infection. These people can’t infect others and they can’t become infected. This is a low number however; the picture will be entirely different when there are a million or one and a half million people in that category. I think the point at which we can consider returning to normal life is when we’ve inoculated healthcare workers. We’ve more or less done that. We’ll have finished vaccinating residents in care homes sometime around the end of next week, depending on how many doses of vaccine arrive. They’ll be followed by people over 60 suffering from chronic illnesses. So that will total about one and a half million people, or 1.7 million people. Next will be other people involved in the defence operation against the virus: the Operational Group, police officers and disaster management personnel. This is when the Government and I will have our turn, as we belong in this category. After this will come older people who don’t suffer from chronic illnesses. At that point we’ll have vaccinated frontline workers, people with chronic illnesses and older people – or at least there will be enough vaccine for all of them, and they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to be vaccinated, because vaccination is voluntary. When we’ve reached that point, with no one at direct risk from the virus, then a new era can begin, and we can talk about how we should lift the restrictions and according to what timetable. The point in time at which that happens depends on the availability of vaccines, however. If there are enough doses we can rapidly reach that point, because we’ll be inoculating people rapidly and effectively. We’ll get there if there’s enough vaccine, but everything depends on whether we can procure it, and how many doses.
So at the moment you can’t give a specific date for the lifting of restrictions.
My notes on how and in what phases we should return to normal life are stored in the most secret of drawers. There is, for instance, the issue of students in their final year at secondary school, looking forward to school-leaving examinations, who are currently being taught online. We’ve spoken about this at the meeting of the Operational Group, but no decision was reached, and we’ll make a decision at next week’s Cabinet meeting. The question is whether they – and they alone – could be placed higher on the vaccination list, and then allowed to return to normal classroom lessons for their school-leaving examinations, and whether it’s feasible to vaccinate them and perhaps their teachers. There are many details such as this, but at the moment I think that, due to the shortage of vaccines, it’s too soon to talk about how we lift the restrictions. What I should talk about instead – and on this I appeal to everyone – is that, although that time isn’t too far off, it’s important that we’re in the right condition when we reach the moment at which we can finally lift the restrictions. We can remain disciplined and keep the virus suppressed and under control; or we can fall victim to a third wave. Therefore I’m asking everyone to accept these restrictions – although I know how difficult they are – until they’re lifted, and to observe the rules which enabled us to curb the first wave in the spring, and to curb the second wave in the autumn.
The special legal order will expire in mid-February. Will the Government go back to Parliament if it needs to be extended?
The solution will probably be that at first we will use our independent power to extend it for two weeks. That’s what we’ll do. Then the spring session will start, and we’ll submit this request to Parliament.
If the lifting of restrictions is subject to the start of mass vaccination, the question arises: when could economic recovery start? An hour ago we spoke to Árpád Kovács, Chairman of the Fiscal Council. He said that, based on the figures and their analyses, they think that the economy could make a comeback in 2021, but obviously this won’t mean the 4.9 per cent growth which we saw, say, in 2019. That could only be achieved later – perhaps in 2022. What are the Government’s calculations in this regard?
I’ve known Árpád Kovács for a very long time. He’s a man of moderation, whose calm and composure I’ve always envied. He’s someone who always speaks with caution. And if he says this, it’s very good news – because what he says can be trusted almost without question, as he doesn’t indulge in unnecessary intellectual speculation or risk-taking. This is something quite remarkable in the current field of economics, which over the past ten years has proved to be more of a lyrical genre. So if he says this, we should regard it as the base situation. My hopes are much higher than this, however. I hope for much more. I’d like to achieve much more, and we’re working to achieve much higher and more rapid growth. We’ll already be in a good enough position if we achieve what he says will certainly happen, but I’d like to do much better than that. This isn’t the sort of thing we should just talk about, however: we should instead take action. And then at the end of the year we’ll see what has happened. Before speaking at length about the economy, if you’ll allow me I’d like to point out what is the most important conclusion for ourselves. A serious country – and Hungary is a serious country, not only because of its past, but also its intellectual capacities – cannot afford to have to go around the world begging for vaccines in the middle of such a pandemic. Earlier, when we were forced to send out scouts to every corner of the world – to all points of the compass – to procure ventilators and other life-saving equipment, the situation was extraordinarily difficult and undignified. Therefore we’ve started the production of ventilators in Hungary. As a result, never again will there be a situation here in Hungary in which we’re unable to manufacture as many machines as would be needed in any rapidly developing crisis. And the same goes for the vaccine. In that regard, the Government has taken the very important decision of ordering construction of a vaccine factory, which will be large enough to manufacture a huge quantity of any necessary vaccine that our scientists, doctors and professors are able to develop. This factory will be built in Debrecen, and as far as I know design work has already started. So we’ve decided to ensure that we never again find ourselves at the mercy of others. Problems exist to be learnt from. Misfortunes such as a pandemic are also always lessons for a country and a nation to learn from. The situation must be understood, conclusions must be drawn, and action must be taken. So in terms of vaccine, we’ll never again be in such a vulnerable position. Now, as regards the economy, the key is work. We must always focus – and this is my top priority – on how we stand as regards the number of jobs. There are always fluctuations, but the latest data showed an upward fluctuation, if I may put it that way. Therefore we can state that in December around 4,000 more people were in work than in December of the year before the pandemic. This is a truly fantastic performance from the Hungarian economy. For this reason, in the past eight or nine months crisis management has focused on saving jobs. Jobs can be saved if businesses are resilient and strong. So we’ve imposed a credit debt repayment moratorium on banks, which has prevented them from collecting more than 3,000 billion forints. We’ve cut central government taxes by almost 500 billion forints. We’ve also persuaded local governments to cut local business tax by 180 billion forints. Because the lesson we learnt from 2008–2009 is that in such times of crisis, rather than imposing austerity measures, we must reduce taxes and implement developments. This is what protects jobs. I don’t want to politicise this, as what I’m saying is just a description of an economic methodology, but in 2008–2009 the governments in office at the time – the governments of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai – implemented a crisis management programme in which they took away the “thirteenth month’s pension”, a month’s salary from doctors and teachers, and so on. They did this because they were convinced that the economy, businesses and banks had to be saved, and to do this money needed to be channelled from the people to actors in the economy, to banks and to companies. They imposed austerity measures and raised taxes. This didn’t work. The present government is in a fortunate position, because it has seen this sad story, and therefore we’re concentrating not on raising taxes, but cutting them, not on reducing wages, but increasing them. In the middle of a crisis we’re implementing the largest pay rise for doctors in Hungary’s history. On Wednesday, we also decided to increase pay for general practitioners. In the middle of a crisis, we’re re-introducing the first instalment of the thirteenth month’s pension. In the middle of a crisis we’re launching the largest ever home creation support scheme. In the middle of a crisis we’ll be offering income tax exemption to those under 25, and we’re planning further family support measures. Anyway, what I’m saying is that our approach to the crisis is about saving jobs and families. And if we succeed in doing that, if we manage to save jobs – which naturally involves having to support businesses and development – then we’ll get through this difficult period. In my opinion the 2008–2009 crisis management programme didn’t work, and was a tragedy for Hungary. The current crisis management programme is not only working, but it’s also opening up new perspectives.
It’s clearly a very good thing if the Hungarian government does what it needs to in order to enable the economy to recover. But there’s the European Union and the economic community that we’re a part of. If there’s no normal cross-border movement, if there’s no vaccination certificate or vaccination passport – and even the name of that document hasn’t been decided – that will hold the economy back, won’t it?
Yes, without doubt. We’re working on this. Yesterday we had a very long discussion with the prime ministers about whether there’s a need for some kind of a certificate that would offer greater ease of movement for those who have already recovered from infection or who have been vaccinated. There will be a debate about this in Hungary, too, but there aren’t yet enough Hungarians with immunity to enable a meaningful debate. But there will be once this number is above one million. If there are, say, one million people who can no longer infect others and can no longer be infected, is it then reasonable to say that they cannot be in the streets after eight o’clock in the evening – like those who could still be endangered by infection? At the moment, however, this number is too low, and so a debate hasn’t been started yet; but it’s in prospect. I think this will be a reasonable proposal as soon as we reach one million. Now there’s a debate emerging on the horizon over whether there should be a card granting border-crossing exemption, or any kind of exemption within Hungary. Yesterday EU leaders took the view that we should try to create some sort of common database, on the basis of which we should implement a kind of registration, leading to the issue of some sort of a certificate which would give the holders privileges of some kind. This is where we are now. So this possibility has only just appeared on the horizon, and we still need to wait for concrete answers.
You mentioned earlier that the Government had agreed to raise the pay of general practitioners and dentists. Earlier the plan was that only general practitioners would receive pay rises. How big will their rises be, and what will be the timeframe for them?
The logic behind this is the same as when we increased the salaries of doctors working in hospitals. The latest increase was in November, and before that we also increased nurses’ pay. But later, based on a proposal from the Hungarian Medical Chamber, we implemented a major pay rise that finally offers doctors fair remuneration. I’m not saying that we’ve already achieved this, but we’re getting to the point at which we can say that their pay is more or less proportionate to the important life-saving and admirable work they do. We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken a very important step. We accepted the Chamber’s proposal, and from now on we’ll try to bring the salaries of other doctors in line with this. As regards general practitioners, the problem in Hungary is that there are districts without designated doctors. Each district is designed to have a general practitioner providing medical services, but right now the system has an undersupply of some four to five hundred general practitioners. This means that there are some people who have difficulty accessing basic health care. We can solve this by encouraging general practitioners to team up. In the kitsch jargon of state administration these are called “practitioner communities”. We’re asking them to join forces and serve districts where there are no general practitioners at present, meaning that no one would be left without access to basic care. Those doctors who are prepared to do this and form partnerships will be paid 80 per cent of what hospital doctors receive, but in some cases their pay could even reach 100 per cent of that. Doctors who aren’t prepared to form such partnerships won’t be left out: they’ll receive pay rises equalling 30 per cent of the difference between their current pay and the pay of hospital doctors. This is the pay rise they’ll be entitled to. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to cooperate, so we can give basic healthcare coverage to all areas of the country.
And what about dentists?
The only question was whether or not dentists should be treated in the same way as general practitioners. There was a long debate about this, lasting some weeks. The Government considered all the arguments, and eventually we saw no reason to make a distinction. This means that dentists will be treated the same as general practitioners, and these pay rises will also apply to them.
Youve mentioned that today is the Day of Hungarian Culture. On this day – 22 January – Kölcsey finished writing the text of the Hungarian national anthem [Himnusz]. Here on public service radio, every hour on the hour before the news we’re playing recordings of legendary actors – from Ferenc Bessenyei to Imre Sinkovits – reciting passages from the National Anthem. When one thinks about it, although the Himnusz is a literary work, in reality it is a prayer. In light of this, the roots of Hungarian culture can no longer be misrepresented: it is undeniable that this is a Christian culture.
Of course. And, as we learnt at school, the Himnusz belongs to the genre of the jeremiad: a prayer in which we reproach ourselves for the disasters that God has visited upon us for our sins. This is a genre – a beautiful genre, incidentally – with essentially Christian roots. I don’t see why there should be any serious debate in Hungary about whether or not Hungarian culture is Christian. The cultural environment and context we live in have grown from Christian culture. These are reference points which are in no way related to whether or not someone has a personal belief in God. This is the cultural environment in which we exist. I remember that in Parliament, sometime in 1990 or 1991, [Prime Minister] József Antall said that in Hungary even atheists are Christian, because they cannot orient themselves towards anything else: they cannot relate their own body of views to anything other than the environment in which we exist. This is why I don’t see room for any political debate about whether or not Hungary is a country with a Christian culture: it’s a simple fact. If someone wants to change that, we can talk about it; if so, why, how, by what means and whether it’s for the better. But there’s no point in disputing that we belong to Europe’s Christian culture – and more specifically, to its [originally] Latin sub-division. Although we tend to forget the significance and importance of the fact that we have Orthodox Christianity backing us up, today Orthodoxy provides us with support, when our own branch of Christianity is not exactly in the best shape. It’s a great help for us, because Christianity not only has the Latin [or Western] variety that we know, but also Orthodoxy; and this is a very great asset. Now, when in our branch of Christianity the institution of the family is under attack, when there are migration issues and attempts at multicultural transformation, Orthodoxy wants no part of that, and provides solid backing for Hungary. Returning to the theme of language, in addition to looking to the past, I think that it’s equally important to maintain our language’s flexibility – which is something we don’t pay much attention to. Computer technology and other new technologies are among the generators of the huge number of innovations entering our lives. If the Hungarian language is unable to describe, interpret and express them well and accurately, our language will become outdated and rigid. So it’s important to continuously maintain its flexibility, and to renew it. I don’t think we’re doing too well in this regard – or at least there are no coordinated efforts to make our language flexible and fit for purpose in the 21st century. Perhaps we’ll have more time for that in the next term.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.