Katalin Nagy: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has come to the studio from a meeting of the Operational Group. What are the latest numbers? Good morning.
Good morning to your listeners. There have been 1,576 new cases, and 98 of our compatriots have died – mostly elderly people suffering from chronic illnesses. There are 3,638 people in hospital, 302 of them requiring assisted ventilation. If we look at the data for the past three to four days, we can conclude that the improvement we saw in the situation has now stopped. As a result, I can’t bring cheer to our listeners by reporting that the situation is improving day by day. At the moment I have to report a stagnation – or a slight deterioration. Luckily we now also have another set of numbers, which we reviewed at this morning’s meeting of the Operational Group, as we do at every such meeting: the number of people who have been vaccinated. By early this morning, 264,530 of our compatriots had been vaccinated at least once, and of these around 92,000 had also received their second vaccination. This is important, because we’ve reached a turning point. So far the virus has been on the attack, and we’ve had to defend ourselves. From now on, we’re attacking, and the virus is on the defence.
Yes, but this week the vaccination plan had to be modified. The third phase – the vaccination of the most elderly people who have registered – couldn’t start as planned: you couldn’t vaccinate everyone who had been notified that they’d be vaccinated. This was simply because fewer vaccines have arrived in the country. Are the shortfalls in supply and later delivery dates compared with manufacturers’ promises this unpredictable?
Unfortunately there’s some uncertainty in the system. The listeners can’t see it, but you can see this very long sheet of paper that I work from, which contains details of the vaccination situation. And while this will change somewhat according to the supplies we actually receive, there’s a clear trend. The present situation is this: today, 264,530 people have received at least one vaccine, and, according to our records, another 275,764 Hungarian citizens have recovered from infection. If things continue to go to plan, then by the beginning of March the number of people vaccinated at least once added to those who have recovered from infection will exceed one million. Indeed in theory – and not only in theory, but also in practice – by 15 March we’ll have vaccinated every Hungarian citizen over the age of sixty who has registered. This means that from the beginning of March those directly at risk from the infection will at least have the immunity given by one vaccine. By the beginning of April almost two million people will have been vaccinated. Our authorities are now performing the necessary tests on the Chinese vaccine, and if we’re also able to use that, then by the beginning of April the total number of people with immunity – the number who have been vaccinated plus those who have recovered from infection, having been infected no more than six months earlier – will exceed two million. This is a decent number, one that we can do something with.
But will there be enough vaccines? And when can vaccination with the Russian vaccine start?
The numbers I’ve just quoted are based on the vaccine supplies that we’ll most probably receive. These numbers include a very small percentage of uncertainty. I could also say that this is the worst-case scenario – things can only be better than this. Russian vaccines are arriving in the country, and we’ll soon start vaccinations with them: we can start inoculating people with the Russian vaccine perhaps as early as next week. Chinese vaccines are also arriving, but for them our authorities are conducting some further tests. We’ll be able to use the Chinese vaccine in line with the progress the authorities make in testing it. It’s good news that in Serbia both the Russian and Chinese vaccines are being used, and they’re making good progress. Their experience is reassuring. There are also a lot of Hungarians among those who have been vaccinated there, because many Hungarians live in Vojvodina, and we’re able to obtain first-hand information from them. At this point in time, this information is reassuring.
How harmful is it that an independent Member of Parliament has questioned the credibility and work of the National Institute for Pharmacology, accusing the Government of wanting to infect Hungarians with the Russian and Chinese vaccines? But he’s not the only one: every other day the Democratic Coalition [opposition party] comes out with accusations like this.
Yes, I think that in this regard we should talk about two separate things. The first is that there’s a battle under way in the world. I don’t have time to go into the details of this battle here, but on the basis of the data, statements and the reports of the tests conducted by various authorities I can clearly see that there’s a battle among pharmaceutical companies. In summary, I can say that in the world today there are three different vaccines: American, Russian and Chinese. This is what the world looks like today. I can’t say that they’re publicly saying good things about one another or that they support one another. Those of us who aren’t in pharmaceutical companies or aren’t their shareholders, but potential patients – normal people who tend to fear this disease – don’t understand this, and find it repellent: we believe that this is about our lives, and it’s not right for all kinds of large multinational pharmaceutical manufacturers to play games with our lives. But I think that in reality this battle is ongoing, regardless of our opinions. From Hungarian statements I can tell which Members of Parliament regularly speak up for American interests, and I know which ones tend to side with the Russians. This means that the battles among large pharmaceutical companies are reflected in the opinions voiced by Hungarian politicians. This is one aspect. The other is about power. I understand the Left: they’re in opposition, and it’s a logical for them to think that if the Government is doing badly, if crisis management is unsuccessful, if the economy isn’t working, if the healthcare system collapses or many people die, including those we could have cured, then that will be bad for the Government. And as they want to be in government, they believe that this will make it easier to remove the current government and for them to replace us. This thinking is logical, but in a global pandemic I think it’s unacceptable. Health care and people’s lives mustn’t be regarded as a political issue, and in my opinion the Opposition – the Left – have gone too far here. They’ve crossed boundaries which, for reasons of humanity and considerations that stand above politics, I believe no one should be allowed to cross. There are countries with better left-wing politicians, where they’ve managed – or the prevailing culture has enabled them – to agree that everyone should focus on assisting the defence operation, regardless of whether someone is from a governing or opposition party, right-wing or left-wing. We’re not such a fortunate country. There’s no reason to get agitated: we must accept it as the reality, and we must get on with our work.
Is there any progress in EU vaccine procurement? Is there anything that the public doesn’t yet know, but prime ministers or heads of state are aware of?
It would be good to have such information, but I have to tell you that the procurement of vaccines by Brussels is making slow progress. My benevolent interpretation of this is that it was important for the Brussels bureaucrats to procure the vaccines as cheaply as possible. This is understandable, because if attacks are made, they are the ones who will be subjected to them on the grounds of prudence in the financial deals related to vaccine procurement. But for those of us who aren’t Brussels bureaucrats but Hungarians, living here, and for the sons and daughters of the nations who organised themselves together in the EU, money – though not irrelevant – is secondary to life. Therefore if we have to choose between procuring vaccines more cheaply but more slowly and in smaller quantities, and procuring them more expensively but rapidly and in large quantities, then we’ll choose the latter. And perhaps in Brussels this isn’t as obvious as it is here in Budapest, in this studio.
During such a pandemic, economic interests and the issue of the economy are extremely important. Yesterday at the opening event of the economic year you said that the economy protection action plan has ended, and a new phase is about to start. What will be the intermediate stages in this new phase, the relaunch of the economy? Will they also depend on the vaccine?
Firstly, I also feel the need for rapid action. Everyone wants to open up, to have freedom and to regain their old lives, so I understand the despair of the owners of restaurants and hotels, and also the pressure they’re trying to exert on us to open the country as soon as possible. This is human. You don’t have to be a restaurateur to appreciate that an important aspect of life – the social aspect – is missing. We could say that this is what gives life its civic character. I spoke to my mother the other day, and she, too, said that we should do something, because now people don’t feel how they want to feel. And there’s a lot of truth in that. If you lead a social life, your better self comes to the fore, and that’s what you try to enhance: you make an effort to look and behave better, and to present yourself in a better light. And that image is usually better than what we actually are. So I think that these are intelligent civic considerations, and they also motivate and spur me. But the facts of the past few days are a particular reminder that we must move forward with caution, in a responsible and planned manner. We’re launching an online consultation. When the virus first struck in March 2020, it took us by surprise; there was no time for consultation, and decisions had to be made immediately. Once we’d suppressed the first wave, in the summer we launched a consultation ahead of the second wave. This was very useful, because it enabled us to ascertain what it is that people find tolerable, and what they find intolerable. Neither is good, but there’s a big difference between them. And they replied that the closure of workplaces, nursery schools, crèches and elementary schools would be intolerable. At the same time, they stated that the closure of theatres, sporting events, exhibitions, hotels and restaurants is tolerable, even though they aren’t happy about it. This is the reason that our defence operation is what it is: it’s based on this consultation. Now, preparing to open again, between mid-February and the beginning of March we’ll have two weeks in which a rapid online consultation will enable us to gather people’s opinions about various provocative and difficult questions regarding the easing of restrictions. But I won’t rush ahead on that today. Now that we have the vaccine, however, we must transition from protection of the economy to relaunch of the economy. As regards protection of the economy, the situation is that the virus attacked us, and we needed to defend the economy – adopting a huge number of decisions in the process. There’s a debate about whether or not this defence operation has been successful. For that I use a single yardstick: the yardstick of how many jobs there are in Hungary, how many people are in work. In December 2020, at least as many – in fact, slightly more – people were in work than one year earlier. This means that we’ve managed to protect jobs. Our philosophy is that if there is work, there is everything. In our economic policy the emphasis is not on benefits, but on work. And now, in the subsequent period, we’re seeing the start of the economic relaunch action plan. Having vaccines means that we’ve turned the ignition key. We’ve adopted the first decisions. These are being initiated and implemented as we speak. At the beginning of April we’ll make decisions which will focus primarily on the transformation of Hungarian higher education, research and development, involving around 1,500 to 2,000 billion forints. Around 1 July we’ll be able to adopt decisions on the launch of major developments centred on modernisation of the entire Hungarian energy system, the development of a green economy, a circular economy, and the launch of a completely new agricultural and rural development programme of unprecedented scale. This will be the third phase. Once we’ve adopted these decisions all these projects will start by October or November, and I think that as a result there’s a good chance that this year of 2021 will be an unprecedentedly successful relaunch year. At the same time I should add that 2020 – which will remain in our memories as a negative year, with declining economic performance everywhere in Europe – doesn’t look at all bad for us by international comparison. The economic growth data for 2020 is in the process of being released, with figures already available in half of European Union countries. We’re in the leading pack, far ahead of others. The rate of contraction in Hungary has been between 5 and 6 per cent: closer to 5, at around 5.1 to 5.2. We’ll see the exact number released by the statistical office, but it’s something of that magnitude. Austria is way behind us, the Germans are slightly behind us or level with us. We might even succeed in overtaking the Czechs – the Czech prime minister is coming here today – and that would be an enormous achievement, as at present they’re doing better than us. But we’ll catch up with them. So I believe that, also by international comparison, the energies invested in the protection of the economy have given a fair return, and this is a good starting point for this year.
Those in the hospitality industry say that social life isn’t the only thing that’s missing; they’re also without livelihoods. Last week you said that at the Cabinet meeting you had asked for the acceleration of payments, the payment of furlough funding. Has this happened yet, and is there any further measure offering assistance to this sector?
Indeed, those in the hospitality sector were right, and are right: the payment of furlough money awarded to them is bureaucratic and slow. There’s a technical explanation for this in public administration; but they’re not interested in that, and they’re right not to be. We introduced a retroactive financing scheme, but this was unsuitable, and so now we’ve changed that: we’re now paying everything they’re entitled to in advance, and we’ll settle matters later, because now what’s perhaps more important than anything else is time. So we’ve changed this system. There’s a good chance that in February they’ll receive everything – including what they’re entitled to for February and what they haven’t yet received for the previous months. We’ve also launched a new programme – not only for them, but naturally, primarily for them – which forms part of our relaunch action plan. We’re able to offer ten-year loans of up to ten million forints each with zero per cent interest to Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises – mostly the smallest businesses. Repayments on these loans will only need to start three years after they’re taken out. This could help smaller businesses restart their operations. This will be a significant item in the budget, but I think it will be worth it.
Despite this, some people in the Opposition claim that small and medium-sized businesses aren’t receiving adequate support.
I’ve yet to hear the Left say that we’ve done something well, or that what we’ve done has been enough. We shouldn’t attach too much importance to that.
When you start thinking about reopening the country, should you make a distinction between those who’ve already been vaccinated and are immune, and those who have not been vaccinated yet and aren’t yet immune? Will the former have extra privileges? How can you solve this in a fair and just manner, so that no one is angered and feels that their rights have been infringed?
I can see the bait dangling in front of my nose. Earlier I said that it’s premature to talk about these issues, but perhaps I didn’t convince you on that matter, and so you want to squeeze some sentences out of me. I’m not going to take a position on these matters. We’ll hold a consultation in order to find out people’s opinions. Anything is possible if the people are able to accept it. What matters on every measure – tightening or easing – is what people will accept, and what they understand. I don’t see anything diabolical in the idea of lifting restrictions somewhat sooner for those who are already immune – either because they’ve been vaccinated or are on the list of those who recovered from infection no more than six months earlier, meaning that they’ve developed natural immunity. But this all depends on what other Hungarians have to say. Because other Hungarians might see it as unfair – I wouldn’t go so far as to call them envious – that those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from infection should enjoy more freedom than those who would like to have been vaccinated, but haven’t yet had access to the vaccine, who haven’t been vaccinated, but through no fault of their own. If they feel that this isn’t fair on them, then such a measure will do more harm to society than good. This is one of the questions we’d like to find an answer to in the consultation. Let me repeat: based on this table here, it’s highly likely that by mid-March we’ll have reached the point at which everyone in the third category – everyone over sixty who has registered – has been vaccinated. This means that those who are directly at risk will be immune – provided that they’ve registered, because we can’t help those who haven’t registered.
The Central Statistical Office has released the most important demographic data. Some of the numbers are a source of delight, but there are also some less delightful ones. The natural decrease in the population was greater, as the pandemic claimed many lives. It is, however, cause for celebration that the number of marriages and the number of births were higher in 2020 than in 2019. How does the Government see this?
The most recent data is interesting, because we started our current period in government in 2010. As a result, we’re able to compare the past ten years with the years preceding them. This is a substantial body of data: not merely annual data, but data for longer periods which are suitable for comparison. As I see it, Hungary has achieved great results over the past ten years. Now I’m not talking about the Government: Hungary has achieved fine results in developing self-awareness and self-esteem. There are more marriages, and people are having more children. As far as I see, they’re raising their children well, meaning that we see statistics about ever more families living in good circumstances. People are making the commitment to have children. There has been a fall in the number of unwanted children – something which is always painful, but is a fact of life. I can say that it’s through families that one sees the condition of a community – in our case, our nation. And it’s in a better condition. This is clear in the way it sees life, because the way it sees life reflects the way it sees children. So we Hungarians are in better shape than we were ten years ago. If, as I have, you’ve had the blessing of leading a government as a relatively young man, and if you’ve also had the blessing of several children and a growing number of grandchildren, you appreciate the importance of how the country’s leaders think about the future. I’m not thinking in terms of election cycles. Naturally I like winning, and for the sake of our supporters I hope that we’ll win as many times as possible, but there’s something more important than that: the direction in which the country is heading. And for that one must think in terms of generations. The primary condition for thinking in terms of generations is for these generations to be born. The current government has a historical horizon. The one hundred years of Trianon have spurred us to adopt this mentality, and the demographic data of the past ten years enables us to think in terms of longer periods, from a higher vantage point. Therefore I urge everyone to support this policy. I myself am committed to providing continued support for families. Since 2010 family support allocated in the Hungarian budget has increased by 150 per cent. Benefits tied to employment are especially important. They’re important for everyone, and as far as I see, it’s also extremely important for our Roma compatriots that they can receive childcare support linked to employment. They are working, and are taking advantage of this opportunity. This has increased the cohesion and unity of Hungarian society. If in 2010 we hadn’t introduced the family support system within which we currently live our lives, then 115,000 fewer children would have been born over the past ten years. Is there a finer indicator of quality of governance or of a ten-year period?
When the Government designed this policy and you said that you’d seek to achieve this over a period spanning the generations, you had to identify the points on which you could help families, or give them a boost – with the baby bonds, say, and then with childbirth incentive credit. There are also measures related to children at kindergarten and elementary school, with free meals and textbooks on request. After leaving secondary school, one’s first language examination is free, and even one’s first driving course. And the latest government measure is that we should try to give people under 25 personal income tax exemption. If we look at this year, we can conclude that in combination these measures could offer assistance from birth until the age of 25 years which could indeed lay the foundations for young people’s independence.
We hope so. I was raised – and I myself made every effort – to stand on my own two feet as soon as possible. I believe that this instinct also exists in parents today, that they want to help their children in this; and I hope that children would also like to become serious, independent people, and to stand on their own two feet as early as possible. We have a concept, reflecting a philosophy for helping young Hungarians to build independent lives, starting from birth. We’re providing crèche, nursery and elementary education as well as free meals and free textbooks. At 14 people reach the age at which they’re no longer children: from 14 onwards they’re young people. This is a more serious period, with more responsibility as they enter the period of youth. Those entering vocational education are given immediate support. For those going to grammar school, we’re paying for their studies, and for those who do well we’re making it possible for them to continue their university studies free of charge. The age of 18 marks the start of young adulthood – which, in our minds, lasts more or less until the age of 25. And we’d like to create genuine opportunities with the combination of the childbirth incentive credit, “CSOK” family housing support, preferential housing refurbishment grants, income tax exemptions and free driving tests. Naturally we have to be very cautious with this, because we’re Hungarians: Hungarians have a strange attitude to accepting help. For them it’s very important that these should be their own free and personal decisions. This is the most difficult part of family support. There are simpler countries, where support for children and families receives 100 per cent backing. Ours isn’t such a country. There are constant debates about whether the Government or policy-makers of the day have the right to state an opinion on whether more children are better than fewer children. Isn’t this interfering in people’s private lives? Hungarians live in a more sensitive world. Therefore we must create a family support scheme by offering opportunities, making it clear from the very first moment which opportunities they’re taking and how: this is about people’s decisions, their free decisions. We don’t want to impose any form or framework of life on them, but we do want to give a chance to everyone who gets married, who wants to have children, to raise children. To our minds a child is also a public good, because the nation itself lives in its children and their future. This is naturally in addition to the fact that children are also a source of personal happiness for every parent. But, after all, this is about the future. So a child is to be valued, and we support people who want this way of life and who choose to start a family. But we must do so without making it seem like we’re interfering. Let me repeat: for more than a decade I’ve been practising this discipline, I’ve been Prime Minister, and debates about this come round every year. It’s so obvious to me that we want to do good in wanting to help families, wanting to encourage people to have children; and yet we are forced to defend a self-evidently good position in these recurring political debates. But the fact that our country is so complex is what makes it so beautiful.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.