Katalin Nagy: Yesterday the Chief Medical Officer said that the third wave of the pandemic has arrived. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has come here this morning from the Operational Group meeting.
Do today’s figures support the assertion that the third wave is indeed here?
They do. I heard this morning’s six o’clock reports, confirming that there were 3,093 new cases, and we’ve lost 110 people. The average age of those who died was 75.6 years. The number of hospitalisations is continuously rising, being 4,024 this morning, with 352 people requiring assisted ventilation. These numbers aren’t good in themselves, but the trend is especially bad, because the numbers are rising steeply. We’re at a very dangerous moment. I’ve been thinking about how I could summarise for the listeners all the information I heard at this morning’s Operational Group meeting. I’d just say that we’re at a dangerous moment, because a number of things are happening simultaneously: we have vaccines, meaning that we’re now inoculating people; the consultation on how to come out of lockdown has started; everyone wants to be released from these restrictions; and meanwhile the third wave is upon us. So now two curves are racing with each other: one is the curve of vaccines, the number of people who have been vaccinated; the other is the curve of new infections, the third wave. And our fate will be decided by which curve proves to be faster. If vaccinations are faster, if more people register for vaccination, if more people register and ask for the vaccine, then we’ll gain lives. If the curve of the third wave is stronger, then we’ll lose lives.
Aren’t you concerned that the healthcare system, hospitals, won’t be able to cope with the burden? We can see that there are problems in the Czech Republic, and also in Slovakia.
But Hungarian health care is exceptionally strong. Over the past year no area has been subjected to a continuing trial of strength comparable to that experienced by the Hungarian healthcare system. And Hungarian health care has passed the test with flying colours. I can safely say that we have excellent nurses. It is Hungarian Nurses Day today, and I’d like to take this opportunity to salute those who have devoted their lives to healing and nursing others. We’re grateful to them, and we’d like to thank them for their work. Anyway, our nurses are excellent, our doctors are world-class, and our hospitals are also good. It’s customary to disparage the Hungarian healthcare system, but there’s no reason for that. In light of the past year, I can point to the impressive performance of people working in health care, including managers, doctors, nurses and people who aren’t directly involved in the healing of people – such as receptionists, blue-collar staff and so on. We can think all sorts of things about Hungarian health care, but we’ve now experienced the continuous test of an entire year, and we’ve seen what we’ve seen: they’ve saved enormous numbers of lives. So I can say that the Hungarian healthcare system will cope. Now if we translate this into the language of numbers, at six o’clock this morning I was told that if suddenly we were compelled to provide hospital treatment for 20,000 COVID patients, we would be capable of doing so. Compared with that, today there are 4,024 people in hospital. This means that we have substantial reserves.
This week I spoke to the Head Nurse of Szent Imre Hospital, whose duty is to organise work at the COVID wing. She told me that the first wave was extremely difficult: they conducted drills like soldiers, measuring the time taken to put on their protective equipment; and they had to relearn how to insert cannulas while wearing two or three pairs of surgical gloves. Now that they know all that, now that they’re practiced, it’s a little bit easier – although not very much.
Yes. These things appear simple, but in fact they’re difficult. In the spring, as part of my routine for managing the defence operation, I decided to visit hospitals one by one, because I wanted to see for myself how doctors and nurses were responding to the tempo of work and how they were adapting to the rapidly emerging danger. Therefore I also had to put on protective gear – and not only a few times, but many times. It’s not simple if you want to do it professionally and make sure that when you’re changing you’re not carrying the infection with you into the wards where the patients are. So it’s not just that you have to be highly trained; this does indeed require a military degree of precision. And in a pandemic this need for precision is different from that required in the course of normal medical care. I saw how they learnt this. I’m 57 years old, and I still learn something every day; there’s no shame in learning. New things come along, and you’re faced with new challenges every day. Naturally we have experience; those of us who are older have an advantage, because we’ve already seen very many things. At the same time, young people are fresher, and so they have some advantage, too. But what matters is that we must learn something new every day. There are all sorts of scientific theories asserting that this will be even truer in the future. Everything around us – not only in health care – will be changing so fast that we’ll have to preserve our capacity to learn – even beyond the age of 60, 70 or older. So learning is no longer something just for the young, as we thought it was in our youth, but it’s something that will stay with us until the end of our lives. And I believe that in relearning things and learning new skills, Hungarian health care has passed its test with flying colours.
Will there be enough vaccines to compensate for these worsening numbers? As you mentioned, there’s a race between the two curves.
I work with long charts on paper which are like battle plans. I can tell you that 391,821 people have already been vaccinated at least once. This number will soon rise to 441,000. Then from that point there will be a big leap; at today’s meeting of the Operational Group we spoke at length about how this should be implemented. In that phase, over a period of seven or eight to ten days we’ll be rapidly vaccinating more than 650,000 people. Then we’ll jump to 1.13 million, and by the beginning of March we’ll reach 1.225 million. This is how many vaccines there will be in the country, and we’ll have to use these. In charge of this project is Minister of State István György, who was Mayor of Kőbánya, and who’s a meticulous person. As far as I can see, this whole process is making good progress. After reaching 1.225 million by the beginning of March, by the beginning of April we’ll reach 2.582 million vaccinations. So by Easter, we’ll be close to – and in fact reach the point of – having vaccinated everyone who has registered so far. This means that I’m encouraging everyone – without rushing anyone, because that would be impolite – to register for vaccination. We simply don’t know about people who don’t register. If we don’t know about them, we can’t vaccinate them. Vaccination is voluntary. When someone goes to be vaccinated, they’re told which vaccine will be used. If they’re happy with the vaccine they’re offered, they’ll accept it and they’ll be inoculated. If not, we’ll reassure them that this doesn’t mean that they’ve been removed from the list of people requesting vaccination, and we’ll inform them when the vaccine they want becomes available. This is everyone’s individual responsibility and decision, because everyone is free to control their own lives. But now I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that the third wave is growing. If someone says that they don’t want the vaccine they’re offered, they’ll go home, and after a few days the rising third wave could reach them, too. There’s a serious risk of this. So everyone should carefully consider their decision. I ask everyone to put emotion aside and avoid making superficial decisions, because that could cost them their lives: they could live, or they could die. So I ask everyone to register and agree to be vaccinated. If possible, accept what you’re first offered, and then by Easter we’ll get to the point at which everyone who has registered has been vaccinated. By European comparison, I can tell you that Hungary is the European Union country with the most vaccines suitable for use. We lead the rankings, and by May we’ll have vaccinated 3.5 million more people than other European Union countries of comparable size. This is simply because we’re relying not only on the EU’s intermittent vaccine supplies, but we’ve also independently procured vaccines from other sources.
Why will the number of people vaccinated increase so dramatically next week? We have a good supply of Sputnik vaccines.
We’re already using them.
They’re already being used. One reads in the press that the Italian authorities have already approved it, and they, too, would use the Sputnik vaccine if they had it.
Well, I don’t want to grandstand, and modesty is an important quality, but underestimating one’s own work is at least as much of a mistake as conceit. After all, this is about our thinking, and Hungarians are quick-thinking. As Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó clearly pointed out at a Cabinet meeting, in November one could already see that there would be the same situation as there was in the spring, which your listeners may remember: the world market’s supply of equipment needed for the defence operation – ventilators, face masks, gowns, and so on – was insufficient to meet the demand for it. So there would be competition. In November the Foreign Minister was already saying that there would be competition for vaccines. Whatever the European Union would say, it could be true or not true. We just hoped that, God willing, it would be true. He said that we shouldn’t rely entirely on that scheme, but instead we should start negotiations in every part of the world to make sure that when a shortage of vaccines emerges, we will have enough. This is why we started talks with the Russians and the Chinese in November. And then the consideration that you just mentioned in your question emerged: what will the others say about this? First of all, to be honest with you, I don’t really care what the others say. Right now we must save Hungarians’ lives, and Hungarians’ lives are only important to us; others see the lives of their own people as important. Therefore we must look after ourselves. So I told the Foreign Minister that we should take that risk. Initially they would criticise us, pick on us, bite and kick, grab at our ankles and trouser legs. But then they’d realise that they need it too. So we must always be one step ahead of them. The consequence of this is that those who take the lead are criticised more. But back then we knew that this would happen. Now everyone – starting with the Germans – is working on finding ways to get the Russian vaccine. And then the time will come when they also start working on finding ways to get access to the Chinese vaccine; of that we can be sure, and we shouldn’t be shocked. The Hungarians should have faith in their brains, foresight and ability to plan, and we should push forward following our own interests.
When do you think we can start using the Chinese vaccine?
We’re all in the hands of (Chief Medical Officer) Cecília Müller. This is what I asked her this morning. She’s an intelligent lady, which I’m sure you can see from her appearances on television. With an air of mystery, she said, “I’m making good progress”. That’s what she said. I also asked her last time. Back then she seemed less optimistic than she is now. So I believe that things are indeed progressing well. It’s not my place to speak about issues that I’m not expert on. She’s an expert on this, and so far she’s been reluctant to give a specific time. But I can see that disease control experts are working round the clock to enable us to save as many people’s lives as possible as quickly as possible.
The consultation on the path out of lockdown was launched on Wednesday. There are seven questions in it, and it can be answered online. An opposition Member of Parliament has said that the consultation is nothing but a clown show. Why do you think the Opposition are attacking the consultation?
Well, this is a left-wing reflex. The Left is an academy of power: a political tradition from Lenin, through Rákosi and János Kádár, continually changing in form, but with the constant feature that they are masters of power. They know neither tolerance nor mercy. When it comes to power, the Left will trample over everyone – including the sick and those threatened by a deadly disease. So if the Left believe that it’s easier for them to gain power through the failure of the vaccination programme and the pandemic management of the national government of the Right, then this is what the Left will say. They don’t mince their words. A new session of Parliament started on Monday, and as I stood there hatred was hissing around me. I watched as they argued for slowing things down as much as possible. That’s what they’re like. We shouldn’t be surprised. I was happy when three months ago the Left granted the Government ninety days’ authorisation to implement extraordinary measures; because even though we’re talking about the Left, back then I believed there was a chance that they’d recognise that this is about life and death and serious issues, not about power and money. But now they’re refusing to renew their support. From what I see, three months have gone by, and they’ve flatly refused to cooperate, they’ve stood against us. I find this very regrettable. All I can say is that I understand the logic of politics, I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I’ve seen many things; but I think that this time the Left have gone too far. This is about lives, about our own parents and grandparents. Everyone who dies is someone’s father or mother, someone’s son or daughter. This is about something much deeper than power and politics. There are human dimensions in this, and the Left should focus on those dimensions, and not go to these lengths.
When will you collate the results of the consultation? How long will you wait? Why is it important for as many people as possible to complete the questionnaire?
First of all, I’d like to make it clear that the responsibility for making decisions lies with us, and the purpose of the consultation is not to give others the responsibility for making those decisions. Life within a community has its order: we elect our representatives in parliamentary elections, they form a government and elect a prime minister; and from then on, it’s absolutely clear where the responsibility for decisions lies. We can’t escape that, because it’s the essence of our job and my job that we must accept responsibility for making decisions on the most difficult issues. This time is no different. The Government accepts responsibility for all decisions related to the return to normal life. But the political approach I believe in is a nationally-oriented one, in which the best decisions are those in which we can involve as many people as possible. The best decisions are those for which see the emergence of as many points of consensus as possible. Despite this, the ultimate responsibility will continue to be with the Government, and with me in person. I shall make these decisions. But people will help me a great deal – and through me themselves – if they state their opinions and if it’s clear what we agree on, how we want to continue the fight, and how we want to break free from the world of restraint, lockdowns and restrictions. They’ll be helping us, and if better decisions are made it’s also good for them. In fact the consultation isn’t being held in the interest of the Government, but in the interest of the people, in the interest of good decision-making. And there’s also a kind of beauty in being able to make good decisions together. So the consultation contains seven important questions, vital questions. I’ve been thinking about these questions for weeks and months. I’ll also complete the consultation questionnaire because I’m duty-bound to do so. And when we smash the third wave, we can restart life.
How many people have completed it so far? It was only launched less than two days ago. Is there any information?
Another reason I believe it’s a problem that the Left disparage national consultations is that millions of people take part in them. The national consultation is not a new thing. Already back in 2010 or 2011 when we needed to create the new Constitution, we had a consultation about the new Constitution. I regularly say that we concluded an agreement with pensioners, and the reintroduction of the “thirteenth month’s pension” is based on an agreement with pensioners around eight or nine years ago in the form of a national consultation asking how they envisaged the preservation of the value of their pensions. We’ve kept to that ever since. So the national consultation is a good tradition in Hungarian politics. People like to take part in it. This is a special consultation, because it’s normally conducted both in writing and online, but now due the shortage of time and the need for speed, this consultation is only online. Within just one day the questionnaire was completed by 120,000 people. I think it’s insulting to call 120,00 people clowns – not to mention those who haven’t yet completed the questionnaire; this is a basic misunderstanding of the job of politicians. It’s not our job to speak like that about people.
This week we commemorated the launch of the Visegrád Four cooperation 30 years ago. Do you think this community, this cooperation, is fulfilling its mission in Europe?
This is no place for advertising, but I wrote an article about this in [the Hungarian daily] Magyar Nemzet, which has perhaps already appeared. In fact I also found a way to have it also published in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. In it I wrote about the mission of the peoples of Central Europe. We [leaders] met in Krakow two days ago. It was a fantastic meeting. At the end of the day, Krakow is Krakow. When you visit those parts you think back to your youth. The Wawel is, after all, the seat of the Polish kings. And when you descend to the tombs of kings, the burial chambers, the crypt of the Wawel, the first place you stop is at the sarcophagus, the tomb of István Báthory, who was among the greatest of Polish kings. And this clearly shows that this Central European cooperation is not a new idea: now we’re talking about 30 years, but it first came into being in the 14th century. We can look back on seven or eight hundred years. This is something very serious, and it clearly demonstrates that the future existence of Central European cooperation depends not only on its acceptance by the leaders of the day; because it’s the product of the forces of geography, politics and the European power relations throughout a period of six to seven hundred years, and we can safely say that those forces haven’t disappeared. There’s a zone lying between the lands of the Germans and the Russians: Central Europe. Slovakia plays a strategic role for us, because Hungary is the only country which doesn’t neighbour all the other Visegrád countries. The Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks are all neighbours; Hungary only neighbours Slovakia. Slovakia links the southern part of Central Europe – where we are – to its northern part. So Slovakia has a strategic role, while Poland is the economic centre of gravity, being a country of forty million. This is why it’s a problem, and – although so far my efforts haven’t met with much success – I’m working on plans to physically link Poland and Hungary with large-capacity pipelines, power lines and transport routes. Being directly connected to Poland through Slovakia is a fundamental, strategic economic interest for Hungary. This requires motorways. With a great deal of difficulty we’ll finally be able to reach Kassa [Kosice], with this section perhaps being completed by the end of the year. But Kassa is a long way from Poland. And so the remaining section should also be built, as a joint project if necessary. Clearly the Slovaks’ possibilities are limited, but it’s in the interest of Central Europe that these North-South connections come into being. We Hungarians must gain access to the Polish market of forty million; and they also want access to Hungary, and to the Balkans further south. The construction of these routes is key to our economic success, and through that to Hungarians’ business opportunities and standards of living. In other words, Central European cooperation includes politics, history and a mission, but it also has a very strong economic content. If we join forces, we’ll all be better off, we’ll all be richer, and we’ll all have more economic opportunities. A precondition for this, however, is that we link Hungary and Poland as rapidly as possible and at as many points as possible.
You mentioned geopolitics. Clearly Western Europe isn’t necessarily happy if a strong alliance comes into being here in Central Europe, just as clearly they weren’t happy about that in earlier periods of history. But the fact that President of the European Council Charles Michel was invited, and that he accepted the invitation, means that the West or Brussels must pay attention to what Eastern Europe is doing.
First of all, if I add up the economic strength of the Visegrád countries, of these four countries of Central Europe, I see that it’s far more than the strength of Western European countries. Together we four are Germany’s largest trade partner. Naturally, individually the numbers aren’t so high, but if we add them up then we’re the number one economic partner of Germany – which is the economic hub of Europe. So no one underestimates the V4 anymore. It’s been a long time since there was a situation like the one when they were saying about us, “They want to join the European Union, should we let them in?” We left that behind a long time ago. We’re inside the EU, and we’re quite self-confidently standing on our own two feet. And we can point to our achievements: these countries have the lowest unemployment in Europe, the fastest economic growth and the fastest technological development – or I believe that it’s now becoming clear that this will be the case. We have strength and dynamism; we’re talking about the engine of the European economy. Who in the West has how much foresight has also always been a question of personal ability. The lesson, the history lesson is here: for a long time – for hundreds of years – the West felt safe because Poland, and then Hungary, were shields and bastions. We defended Europe, the territory of the European Union – although that’s not what it was called at the time – against external threats. So a strong Central Europe provides greater security for Western Europe. Now the situation has changed, because with migration they’ve let in cultures with non-Christian roots. Now this kind of cultural pressure or challenge is no longer coming through Central Europe but from elsewhere, because we built the fence and stopped migration. So the situation has changed. We’re protecting their security, but this security is no longer perfect, because they’ve opened their back door. This is naturally their own business, but a smart Western European politician is perfectly aware that the security of Western Europe still largely depends on how we Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians stand our ground in protecting the EU’s external borders. We also remember, however, that when the Turks attacked us and the Ottoman Empire arrived in Hungary and occupied one third of the country, large Western European countries – and I won’t mention names now – allied themselves with the Turks behind our backs, simply to weaken the Habsburgs and Hungary. This is a bad European tradition. Europe has a large store of experience. When Europe stands together, it’s able to defend itself against external threats. But Europe is on the wrong track if, instead of standing together, it supports an external enemy in order to improve the internal power position of one country or another. We also know this. So on the whole I can say that a smart European politician is perfectly aware that a strong Central Europe is in the strategic interest of Western Europe.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.