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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: Nowadays he begins his day around this time in the Operational Group and finishes late in the evening. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What decisions were made this morning?

Good morning. Indeed various bodies meet in various formations throughout the day. There are our action groups, the Operational Group, and from time to time I call together medical professors, researchers and hospital directors to ask them for their opinions. I did that yesterday, and today I started the day at the meeting of the Operational Group. We convene every day at 6 a.m. And we have made an important decision, for which I’ve also signed a decree. I would like to quote these two sentences verbatim to all those listening to us on the radio. We have decided to introduce restrictions on free movement: restrictions on free movement throughout Hungary from 28 March to 11 April. For two weeks all of us may only leave our homes or places of residence in order to work and to obtain what is needed to meet our basic needs. This decree will be published within moments. It will list the basic reasons for which people may leave their homes or places of residence. We have tried to define these basic reasons – the exemptions – so that people can tolerate this restriction and life continues to be liveable. The intent behind any restriction is, on the one hand, to serve a clear goal; and, on the other hand, to place only as great a burden on people as they are actually able to bear. Therefore we’re not talking about a curfew, because in a curfew even a fly couldn’t leave your house: you’d have to stay at home, your hat and coat would stay on the hook, and you’d hardly be able to move. But this isn’t a curfew: it’s a restriction on free movement. I would very much like to avoid a situation in Hungary where we really need to introduce restrictions that make life almost unbearable. We’ve designed our approach on the basis of reasonable, proportionate international models, having over the past few days examined the Bavarian approach, the Austrian approach, and those of the Czechs and the Slovenes. And of course we’ve looked at the approaches of everyone else, but these are closest to us and their lives work in a similar way to ours. In essence we’ve used the Bavarian approach as our starting point. Our approach is a little stricter than that in Bavaria, because we have a section in this decree – and I’ll be happy to talk about this later – that seeks to segregate older citizens from younger ones in a tolerable way. Within the decree there’s a special rule that people over the age of 65 may visit grocery stores and pharmacies – that will still be open – between 9 a.m. and 12 noon; but between those times other people will not be allowed to enter. So pensioners can come out, they can be out in the air. We’re also allowing walking for health reasons, in parks and so on, while practising social distancing – keeping 1.5 metres from others. But when they go into shops where it’s more crowded, we’re introducing a time separation between the vulnerable seniors and younger people – who are unlikely to be ill, but may be carriers of the virus. You know that very many people carry the virus without falling ill themselves. If they meet older people, then the latter not only fall ill, but they can become very ill – and even die. So it’s worth putting such a restriction in place. This isn’t mentioned in the Bavarian regulation. So I think we know about everything that has happened in Europe, and even the Asian restrictions; and from this we’ve selected what is tolerable for the Hungarian mentality, for the Hungarian way of life – and also effective. I expect the number of contacts to decrease; and if it does, the epidemic will also slow down.

Was this the right time for this decision, bearing in mind that people have been accepting the advice, and have been confronted by the reality in the images coming out of Italy and Spain? Does this degree of tolerability allow me to, say, take lunch to an elderly relative?

Now, let’s try to understand what’s going on in people’s minds and souls. This isn’t easy. One also has to respect people’s private lives, so one shouldn’t know too much about them; but one needs to know certain things in order to understand the consequences of one decision or another. This is why we use methods involving questionnaires, continuously collecting information on how people’s lives are developing. These are voluntary questionnaires. Some of these have prompted hundreds of thousands of replies. While they’re not fully representative samples, and I cannot say that the conclusions drawn from them can be defended with scientific certainty, they do provide very strong supporting evidence. From this we concluded that the restrictions enacted so far have been effective. So before the outbreak the number of so-called contacts was over 500,000, say, and the measures have resulted in this falling to one tenth – one tenth! So that would be 50,000. So now it isn’t the absolute numbers that are important, but the proportional change. So Hungarians have been disciplined in reducing the intensity and number of their social contacts to one tenth of what they were, and this is part of a continuing process. And now we’ve stopped; so if we don’t introduce more restrictions now, it won’t decrease any further. This is why it was needed now. We were fine while the number was falling by itself. We now need a government decree for this decline to continue, and this is why there are restrictions on free movement. So to answer your question briefly, yes, now is the time.

What are these good reasons? Tell us one or two, because now everyone is apprehensive.

There’s a service in our schools allowing children to be taken there, where we guarantee that they will be looked after in groups of no more than five, and also be taught. So this service will be retained: you can still have a child who can’t be looked after at home, and they can be taken to school and be safe there during teaching hours. This is because we haven’t closed the schools: we’ve simply switched to a digital system, with the school buildings still open and children still being brought in. Similarly, local governments have designated kindergartens for this purpose, and this is how they will operate during this period. It is possible to go outside, but please do not gather together, and try to keep at a distance from one another. Of course the rules for relatives are more relaxed, and those for people who are not members of the same family are less relaxed. This morning I talked at length with the police. If someone doesn’t obey the rules it is a violation. But I also told the police that the aim is not to put people through a training drill and rigidly enforce the rules in every particular, because that’s not even possible; what we need to do is gain people’s cooperation. So the police don’t need to forcefully require compliance with the rules, but help people to keep to them. Of course decisive action needs to be taken if someone doesn’t want to follow the rules, and it can be seen that what they’re doing is dangerous – not only to themselves, but to other people. But in this situation, too, the police have to cooperate with people and use lawful force. I’ve specifically asked them to move in the direction of cooperation.

Will there be sanctions?

They will be classed as violations, and an on-the-spot fine can be imposed. The police cannot take money from anybody, but they can issue a fine; I can’t tell you exactly how much, but as far as I remember this can range anywhere from 5,000 forints up to perhaps 50,000 – or more. But of course there will be penalties, because no rule works without a penalty – that’s just human nature.

We hear, for example, that handball players from Veszprém have offered their services to a hypermarket because there’s a shortage of shelf stackers. We hear of Budapest taxi drivers offering to take nurses home for free, baking pizzas in pizzerias, and thousands of others volunteering. So it seems that there is unity in Hungarian society.

There is unity and intelligence – if I may use that term. This isn’t the first crisis that I’ve seen at close quarters, and I’ve learned that a major crisis – in this case a large epidemic – can only be dealt with intelligently. And intelligence is not the same as education. Because a person – anyone, regardless of how many schools they’ve been to or how many years of education they’ve had – can have innate natural intelligence. And I think Hungarians have always been blessed with innate intelligence – because for discipline that is also what one needs. There is a need to understand the situation, its essence, and see that the rules that we’re imposing are reasonable. And if someone possesses understanding and insight, they will be disciplined. So in Hungary discipline doesn’t arise from a herd mentality: underlying the discipline is a natural intelligence, the natural intelligence of a serious people. And so we know exactly what is possible and what isn’t, in what way we can help each other and in what way we can’t. So I think that in every crisis we’re always surprised at ourselves when we look at the country, because in times of crisis our country always shows its better side, its fairer face.

Do you think we’re doing well in terms of national unity? Even in politics?

Politics is another matter, because politics is still a power struggle: there’s a governing party and an opposition. And the Opposition cannot be blamed for wanting power and wanting to get into government, but there’s always someone else there – in this case us – in that position, who must be attacked to gain power. I understand that. This is called politics. But politics is not what we need now. There are times when a country definitely doesn’t need politics, but cooperation; because the more we come together, the more lives we can save. This is not about power and governance now, but human lives. And I truly hope that the general mindset of politics will shift towards cooperation. Although in this we’re not doing well right now, we will emerge from this situation. In the last parliamentary sitting I didn’t get the authorisation, the Government didn’t get the necessary authorisation, with the required speed. This is regrettable, and as a result, now there is legal uncertainty in relation to some of our measures. But on regulations at the borders I’ve extended the entry restrictions, which are based on other legal grounds: we cannot leave the country unprotected, even if the Opposition has not deigned to contribute to a swift decision. And the legal force of our decision to close universities has also expired. On this we’ve appealed to rectors to keep their universities closed, regardless of whether or not the legislation is in place. We will emerge from this more difficult stage next Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Members of Parliament representing the governing parties will be able to provide enough votes for measures that will enable us to act quickly – because then we’ll only need two thirds of the votes rather than four fifths. Speed is of the essence. We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and law-making procedures. And in times of crisis and epidemic, the ability to respond rapidly can save lives. The Government is not asking for anything extraordinary: it is asking for the ability to rapidly enact certain measures. We don’t want to enact measures that the Government has no general right to enact: we simply want to do so swiftly. I think that on Tuesday or Wednesday there will be a clear legal situation, and then I think that Hungarian politics could return to the path of cooperation.

And the European Union? Is it assisting you in this rapid reaction? This week the media reported that various European Union institutions would like to examine the bill that the Government has just submitted.

To be honest, for all I care they can examine it. We wish them every success, and good health. I think of myself as a polite person, and that’s how I try to behave – particularly with ladies, as one should. But there are situations in which one cannot be polite. So I plainly told EU nit-pickers, if I may put it that way, that this is not the time to come to me pontificating about all sorts of – no doubt fascinating – legal and theoretical questions. Because now we have a crisis, now we have an epidemic, and now we must save lives. Let’s debate what we need to debate later. And if they can’t help – and they can’t – they should at least not obstruct the Hungarian people’s defence operation. I’ve told them this very bluntly and clearly.

Did you manage to agree on anything at the virtual EU summit?

We’re a Member State of the European Union, and we must do all we can to ensure that this community we belong to is as strong as possible. So we want a strong Europe. But we must also acknowledge that this alliance, the European Union, has its weaknesses – and these are especially apparent in the present pandemic, for instance. Naturally we are cooperating, in particular with our neighbours, and yesterday I was at a separate meeting of the V4. But we must acknowledge that not much help comes from that direction. We have received help from the Chinese; and I’ve turned for assistance to the members of the Turkic Council, of which Hungary is also a member, and have received help. This is the situation at the moment. For all that, we’re still a member of the European Union. We belong to this Western alliance, this is where we are at home, and this is where we must give one another mutual assistance. But we must acknowledge that at present help is not coming from here, not coming from within. I don’t want to start a debate now – because we’ll have time for that after the crisis – about the whereabouts of the hundreds of well-paid experts from the European Union’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and what they had to say about the whole coronavirus situation back in, say, January or February. Let’s deal with that question when the pandemic is over, because right now we must protect ourselves. But we should see and be aware of the weaknesses of the European Union’s entire structure.

Do the restrictions on movement which you’ve just decided on and announced affect the economic stimulus measures, or the economy itself? For example, the opening hours of retail outlets?

These things always affect the economy. All places where people meet and eat together in public must be closed. But now people must come first, not the economy. Naturally in the meantime we’re already working on an economy protection action plan: an action plan to relaunch the economy. We’re working on finding ways to help those whose jobs have already been hit by the crisis: those who have lost their jobs, or are close to doing so. So there are also economic plans; but the top priority is saving people. And while we greatly respect economic and business experts, right now our recognition and gratitude must primarily be directed towards doctors, nurses, paramedics, epidemiologists and those working in law enforcement. This is because they are the ones working on the front line. I admire and respect those who enable the country to function on a daily basis, with their work in supermarkets, pharmacies, factories or delivery trucks. And the truth is that I’m also grateful to every Hungarian, because in a war – and this is a war situation – what counts is not only the front line, though of course that is the most important, but also the home front. A disorganised home front would make it very difficult for our doctors, say, to stand their ground on the front line. But as I see it, the home front is also well-organised. Therefore as the country’s prime minister I thank every Hungarian who, thorough their cooperation, has been assisting in the defence operations.

How will the economy recover from this months-long crisis?

We’ll grab it by the scruff of the neck and haul it out of the ditch. That’s what will happen. This is what we’re planning to do. The Governor of the Central Bank is taking part in this work, so is the Finance Minister, and the other government ministers dealing with the economy are also doing fine work. We have good plans. It will be worth talking about this on another occasion. As I see it, at some time in the first or second week of April I’ll be able to make public an action plan serving to relaunch the economy. But until then we’re concentrating on the defence operations. It’s very important for us to avoid harbouring any illusions. The virus is here, and now we can’t prevent it being here. Now it’s here. There is no vaccine. So we’re not yet able to kill it, to eliminate it. So while it’s here it’s also spreading. We can’t lock ten million people in ten million separate rooms to stop the virus from spreading – that’s impossible. As a result the virus will keep spreading – proportionally, to some extent, with the number of contacts or physical interactions among the public. Now we’re working to slow the spread. This is our goal. Not to kill it, because that would require a vaccine. We must slow its spread. We must slow its spread, because this virus is making people sick – not most people, as around 80 per cent can be called carriers of the virus. These people will hardly even notice that they’ve been infected with the virus. They are carriers. But there are around 15 to 20 per cent who will fall ill, who will display symptoms. Some of these many people – of these two million people, when one relates the percentage to Hungary’s overall population – will need hospital care. And some people within this group will need intensive care in hospital: the older they are and the more serious their underlying conditions, the more they will need such intensive care. If there is mass transmission and we’re unable to slow the rate of infection, all of these many patients will want to go to hospital and receive intensive care at the same time, and the Hungarian healthcare system will be unable to cope. As I see it, when we reach the peak load – we’re not there yet, but the epidemic is spreading and we’re heading for the peak, for the summit – the Hungarian healthcare system will experience a patient load which is around ten times that normally seen in peacetime: not wartime, but peacetime. This means that the healthcare system will have to cope with ten times the normal load in terms of material supplies, beds, ventilators, doctors and nurses: for the operation of hospitals we will need ten times the usual amount of everything and everyone, for which there must be organisation, resource management, staff deployment scheduling, and the issuing of orders. As they come into contact with patients, inevitably a certain percentage of our doctors will become infected. Today the most important task is to protect them, because they are the ones who will be able to help others. In the management of supplies, the number one priority is also for the necessary personal protective equipment to be received by those who can help us: doctors and nurses, and then police officers, those responsible for maintaining law and order. Those who are infected will drop out. In China this figure was 4 per cent of doctors, and in Italy 10 per cent. If someone drops out of work for two weeks, someone else will have to replace them; this is a military-style plan. The country is currently operating according to something like a military-style plan of operations, with resource management, deployment commands, supplies and restrictions on movement. If we do this well over the next two weeks, the number of physical interactions will fall dramatically and the spread of the epidemic can slow down. We will pass the peak without our healthcare system being overwhelmed. For this we will need heroic doctors and nurses, and disciplined patients and family members. These are what we have in Hungary, and if we organise things well, the plan will work.

This week more than sixty tonnes of protective equipment arrived from China. The Chinese ambassador has said that this will be followed by further consignments. We’ve also received supplies from the Turkic Council. The production of face masks has started in Hungary, and we’ve heard that MOL will expand its activities to include the production of liquid disinfectant. Do you think that all this will ensure the availability in the lengthy upcoming period of all the supplies needed by doctors, soldiers, police officers and all the rest of us?

As I’ve said, we introduced resource management according to a military-style plan. From Monday morning, hospital commanders will be present in leadership positions in every hospital. They will be uniformed, so I’ve deployed uniformed personnel to every hospital. This is not to decide on who should or shouldn’t be operated on, because that doesn’t seem to be a good idea. So doctors and chief medical officers will all stay in their posts, and they will be required to decide on medical issues. At the same time, the hospital commanders will be responsible for enforcing compliance with disease control regulations, ensuring the availability of supplies, and continuous personnel deployment. If this system works well, our hospitals will be able to cope with the increased burdens over the next few weeks or months.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.