Honourable Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament,
In line with our constitutional traditions, I have asked for the floor in order to inform the National Assembly about the two months that have passed since our last sitting. I do this with special regard to the fact that on that occasion the legal basis for the present measures received 90 per cent of the House’s votes, with the Government thereby receiving authorisation – including from the Left – for its crisis management programme.
As has been the case over the past year, these two months have centred on the fight against the coronavirus. Using the authorisation received from Parliament, and relying on the advice of disease control experts, we introduced restrictive measures on 11 November. I would like to place emphasis on the advice of disease control experts, and stress its importance. In a protracted pandemic there is a great temptation for political decision-makers or representatives of the people to imagine that they are disease control experts. Due to the pandemic’s prolonged duration, it is true that we are gaining some knowledge in this field, but that bears no comparison with the knowledge of disease control experts. At the same time, we do not want to duck responsibility for decision-making: organising and controlling the defence operation continues to be one of the Government’s responsibilities. When making our decisions, however, we shall always insist on giving the fullest possible consideration to the opinions of disease control experts.
Fellow Members of Parliament,
pandemic numbers are rising across the whole of Europe, including in Hungary. In the last consultation the Hungarian people made it clear what restrictions they would accept, and in that consultation last summer they also made it clear that the country must continue to function during the period of the defence operation. This is why we have kept both workplaces and elementary schools open. Curbing the pandemic has necessitated a curfew, the closing of clubs and bars, baths, theatres, restaurants and concert venues, and the banning of audience attendance at cultural and sports events.
With regard to the method of healthcare crisis management in Hungary, I can tell you that our crisis management has been consistent. Since November we have effectively made no changes to the measures, and I believe that this is why we have managed to keep the pandemic under control. The third wave is surging massively in countries which followed a different path, which believed in continually changing protective measures, and in those Western European countries where restrictions were lifted at Christmas. So I believe that we made the right decision when we maintained our initial measures. The pandemic curve in Hungary has not declined for ten days. The downward phase of the second wave has come to a halt. According to the experts – although they themselves are not entirely certain about this – the more infectious mutation could lead to another rising trend. It is therefore necessary to extend the authorisation received from Parliament, and it is also necessary to consistently observe the strict rules currently in effect. In Hungarian society there is an ongoing debate about reopening the country. There are some who would like to reopen as early as today. In truth, we want more than that: we do not want to simply turn the sign on the door from “closed” to “open”; we want to relaunch the economy and the whole of civic social life. We want to come out of the pandemic stronger than we were when we went into it.
The precondition for return to life as normal, however, is the vaccine. Without the vaccine we cannot stop the virus, because it will keep returning in renewed waves. Therefore the most important task the country faces is to try to procure as many vaccines as possible – not “later”, as Brussels keeps promising, but quickly. We will be satisfied with every vaccine which is safe and which has already been used to vaccinate millions of people worldwide. Here in Hungary we can hardly afford to reject a vaccine which is being used to inoculate Hungarians in Vojvodina. This is why, in addition to Western vaccines, we have also purchased Russian and Chinese vaccines. Under the terms of an agreement concluded with Russia, over a period of three months enough vaccine will arrive in Hungary to inoculate one million people. We have also managed to reach an agreement on Chinese vaccines: we are buying enough vaccine from Sinopharm to inoculate 2.5 million people. This means that in Hungary five effective and safe vaccines have already been authorised for use, and this is key to the launch of mass vaccination. Despite the uncertainties of vaccine supply and distribution in Europe, I can confidently tell you that we have already ensured that by the end of May we Hungarians will be able to vaccinate 3.5 million more people than any other European Union country of comparable size which only relies on Western vaccines. There is even a realistic chance that by the beginning of April the number of people who have been vaccinated will pass the two million mark. This means that everyone over the age of 60 who has registered – every one of our compatriots in the highest risk age group – could be vaccinated by the beginning of April. In my view, Hungary needs all the vaccines it can get, because it is the vaccine that saves lives and jobs: it will be the vaccine that takes us back to normal life. Every day counts, and it is literally true that those who gain time gain lives – in fact many hundreds, many thousands of lives. This is why no one should turn the vaccine into a political issue. One should not use the issue of vaccines in order to prove one’s allegiance to America or to Brussels.
Honourable Fellow Members of Parliament,
Since the beginning of the pandemic, all our decisions have been based on listening to the opinions of disease control experts, while also paying attention to the opinions of ordinary people. This is why last summer, before the second wave, we held a public consultation on the pandemic. It makes sense to introduce only those restrictions which the majority of people accept, and which can therefore be implemented. The Government also needs people’s support during management of the crisis, and it is striving to obtain and maintain that support.
The pandemic is not yet over; with the start of vaccination, however, we have entered a new phase. There are some who believe that we can start lifting the restrictions in parallel with the vaccine rollout; others call for caution, as across the whole of Europe the pandemic is on the rise. Therefore we are launching another consultation, this time regarding issues related to reopening. We will ask for people’s opinions on seven important questions. I am taking this opportunity to ask for as many of our compatriots as possible to sit at their computers or open their smartphones, and share their opinions with us. And in the meantime they should not forget that on the same website – on vakcinainfo.gov.hu – they can still register to be vaccinated, as it is not too late for that.
Having informed you of the epidemiological situation, I would also like to inform you of the economic situation. Before the pandemic the Hungarian economy was one of the most stable and fastest growing in Europe, with a low budget deficit, falling national debt, record high employment, increasing wages, decreasing poverty, and an enormous capacity for attracting investment. Even more important than this, it had matching self-confidence and optimism. In 2020 the pandemic hit the Hungarian economy hard. This shock did not cause convulsions, but it halted the Hungarian economy and pushed it back – by about 5.2 per cent, according to a European Union estimate. Protecting jobs was at the heart of our crisis management programme. You know our approach well: if there is work, there is everything. This was the task for the economy protection action plan. We introduced a debt repayment moratorium which offered help to some 50,000 Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises. It has left around 3,000 billion forints in the pockets of almost 1.6 million beneficiaries: businesses and families. We are helping businesses in distress with wage support funding. We are shouldering half of the wage bills of hotels, restaurants, fitness centres, baths and entertainment industry venues, we have suspended the social contributions tax, and halved the local business tax. As a result of this strong and targeted wage support system, we have used around 80 billion forints to protect 250,000 jobs, affecting around 5 per cent of Hungary’s 4.5 million workers. We have provided investment grants for 1,434 Hungarian businesses so that they can retain jobs or create new jobs. This has facilitated the retention and creation of around 280,000 jobs. We have introduced guarantee programmes, and have spent a great deal of money on ensuring that the Széchenyi Card Programme – jointly managed by the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and KAVOSZ – is swiftly and cheaply made available to everyone. We have helped almost 40,000 businesses with cheap loans. In 2020, we paid out 500 billion forints to 1,400 businesses – 1,400! This will result in almost 1,700 billion forints of private investment – mostly over the next two years, in 2021 and 2022. As a result, more than half of the funds that flowed into the economy have gone to micro- and small enterprises.
The measures of the economy protection action plan have proved to be successful, because in Hungary in December the same number of people were in work as had been before the pandemic. There are many different statistical figures, but the Government attaches special importance to one of them: how many people are in work, how many people have jobs. I can inform you that in Hungary in December 2020 the same number of people were in work as had been before the pandemic. The number of those in work reached 4.5 million. In Hungary at present the unemployment rate is somewhat higher than it was before the crisis, at 4.3 per cent. I would also like to point out that these are the third best figures – the third lowest unemployment figures – in the whole of the European Union.
We will gradually and responsibly start lifting restrictions as soon as we have enough vaccines. Not only will we return to where we were in 2019, but we will launch an action plan and introduce new measures for development of the economy. We refer to the full range of these measures as an economic relaunch action plan. The Government is convinced that the Hungarian economy must be relaunched with the creation of jobs, tax cuts and investment funding. We continue to insist on the principle of providing jobs instead of benefits, because this has been the economic basis of success over the past ten years.
Honourable Speaker, Honourable Fellow Members of Parliament,
The relaunch action plan comprises seven measures: VAT on housing construction projects has been reduced to 5 per cent; we are providing 3 million forints for housing refurbishment projects; we are providing wage support funding to businesses in distress; for doctors we have launched the biggest programme of pay rises in many decades ; we are implementing the phased reintroduction of the “thirteenth month’s pension” in four instalments; we are introducing personal income tax exemption for people under the age of 25; and we are offering the smallest Hungarian businesses interest-free fast-track relaunch loans of up to 10 million forints each. Once we have completed the measures I have mentioned, in the next stage of the economic relaunch action plan we will also launch a large-scale investment funding programme worth several thousand billion forints, to be co-financed with the European Union. The prime beneficiary of this element of the action plan will be higher education. Over the next few years we will implement Hungary’s biggest ever university development plan: we will be investing around 1,500 to 2,000 billion forints in our universities.
Fellow Members of Parliament,
Last Friday we started distribution of the first instalment of the thirteenth month’s pension. This clearly shows that the nature, the guiding principle and logic of today’s crisis management programme is different from that employed in Hungary before 2010. This crisis management programme – our crisis management programme – is national in character: it does not try to make the Hungarian public pay the price of the crisis. In Hungary in 2010 we put an end to the approach which placed the burden of paying the price of crises primarily on pensioners. In 2010 we decided to guarantee the value of pensions, even in the biggest crises – and in 2010 the crisis was a rather serious one. And as soon as our economy gained in strength we also pledged to gradually give back what the Left had taken away.
I believe that Hungary is a strong country. This is why it has stood its ground well during the pandemic. It is a strong country because it has bravely stood up and won the battles which it fought in Brussels to protect its interests. But our country is also strong because it is able to appreciate those who built this country with work throughout their lives. It is also important to grant financial recognition for the efforts of our compatriots who have worked throughout their lives and thereby improved the lives of their families and of the country. As their successors, it is our duty to recognise the sacrifices they have made.
Finally I would like to say a few words about the income tax exemption for people under the age of 25. No one has ever done anything like this in Hungary; no one has ever introduced such a measure. We believe it is important, however, for every young person to be able to stand on their own two feet and start an independent life. Young people will receive this tax benefit in relation to their jobs; they can apply for “baby shower loans”, family housing benefit and other home creation schemes in relation to establishing a family; and to help in raising children they will be eligible for tax benefits calculated in relation to their children. As a result, these measures will complete the range of opportunities available to young people for the establishment of independent lives and their years as young adults.
In closing, allow me to briefly summarise the tasks towering ahead of us in the coming months. We will be working on three great projects: first of all, we will complete the mass vaccination campaign; secondly, after the consultation and taking people’s opinions into consideration, we will gradually and cautiously lift the restrictions; thirdly and finally, we will relaunch the economy. We have a relaunch action plan, every point of which we will implement, and I hope that Hungary will be stronger after the pandemic than it was before. I ask my fellow Members of Parliament – regardless of party affiliation – to support the Government’s crisis management and economic relaunch action plan.
Thank you for your attention.