Katalin Nagy: The Government has accepted a recommendation from the European health agency, and extended the present restrictions up until 1 March. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What were the arguments – based on the Operational Group’s recommendations – that convinced the Government to maintain the restrictions?
Good morning. These pandemic issues are domestic, so the least important consideration was statements by magnificent padishahs in international organisations. These issues are here, and they’re different in every country, so the responsibilities are national, and national decisions must be adopted. We’ve consulted experts on this. Like you or anyone else, I want to be free of these restrictions: living in a grey zone between incarceration and freedom in which we must be home by eight in the evening, not meeting in groups of more than ten, being unable to go to restaurants and other scenes of social life in general. All this takes its toll on countries like Hungary, where our kind of civic culture and social life is an essential part of a full and valuable existence. So it was with a heavy heart that I was forced to admit that the disease control experts were right. They said I should look around in Europe, and I’d see that in many places they’re tightening the rules rather than easing them. They said that we shouldn’t sacrifice the results we’ve achieved over the past three months, when we’ve been consistently, rationally and resolutely maintaining essentially the same system of restrictions. We replaced our earlier free life with another, semi-free life. These are the rules we’re living by at present. If we remove the restrictions prematurely, everything that we’ve achieved in those three months will come to nothing. Therefore we should pay attention to one another, we should look out for one another. Every life matters. Caution is the key note, even as we’re all counting down the days.
We can see what’s happening elsewhere, can’t we? Countries like Britain and Portugal, where restrictions were eased somewhat over the holidays, are again facing serious problems. We’ve seen pictures of the lack of beds in hospitals. But even if some rules could have been eased – allowing fitness centres, say, to reopen – this wouldn’t have been an option, because then restaurants would have been angered by their inability to reopen.
Who is angered by what is important, but this is about human lives. Every day we could lose between one and two hundred people, and if we take a wrong turn we might lose even more. So, compared with cold rationality, I think that anger, indignation and emotions are secondary. Anyway, at a time when everyone is on edge, when everyone is emotional and filled with indignation, it’s the responsibility of a leader, the responsibility of a decision-maker, to remain as calm and composed as possible, to stay cool and make good decisions. We shouldn’t always be driven by our emotions – although they mustn’t be denied either, because we have hearts as well as brains. We love sport, and I think a few hundred thousand of us in this country were screaming at our televisions when rooting for the Hungarian handball team. So it’s important to retain one’s emotional self; but we must remain calm and composed when we make decisions – decisions which fundamentally affect the lives of others. The decisive argument is not who’ll be upset or angry, but what encourages the spread of the pandemic and what prevents it. For instance, many people said that now the curfew could start at ten o’clock instead of eight o’clock, that we could ease this a little. My argument, however, is that we’re working on procurement of vaccines. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the feeling of gradually returning to our normal lives, because we don’t know whether there will be enough vaccines, how the third wave will descend on the countries surrounding us, and what impact that will have on us. And in that event there would be an enormous sense of disappointment, having thought that we were about to open the country, and yet being unable to do so – or perhaps even having to take a step backwards. For months I’ve been saying that many countries in Western Europe have decided to take one step forward, but then took two steps back – or two steps forward and one step back. So they’ve been continuously patching things up, if I can put it that way. They’ve kept juggling with their restrictions, while we’ve been in the same system since November. So I suggest that until there are enough vaccines, we should accept that we must adapt our lives to the virus. Once we have enough vaccines, we’ll put the virus to the sword. Then we’ll have conquered it, and we’ll be free again.
Despite the restrictions, some restaurants are planning to reopen on 1 February. Of course it also turns out that this group is being organised by a left-wing politician: a Momentum politician in Szombathely. We’ve also seen, however, the arrest of the owner of a restaurant in France that reopened in defiance of the ban.
I came here from a meeting of the Operational Group, where we also spoke about this issue. I’ve asked the authorities not to arrest anyone. Naturally my request doesn’t have the same status as the law. If there’s no vandalism, no breaking of shop windows or burning of cars as we’ve seen in France and other countries, if there’s no violence to be countered, then after all what we’re talking about are minor offences. This isn’t the same as serious crime. At the same time I’d like to ask everyone – whether they’re restaurateurs, cafe owners or their customers – for patience. This isn’t only because they could put themselves at risk or in harm’s way; after all, that’s their business and their lives. But this is a pandemic, a virus which infects people: they’ll go to work, go home, meet others and transmit the infection. In that event everything would start again from scratch. And people could die just because we couldn’t hold on for a few more weeks. I understand that restaurants and hotels are in a difficult situation. We’re doing everything we can to help them; we have all sorts of measures, which have been criticised for being too slow. I don’t rule out the possibility that such criticism is justified. At the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday I said that if this is true we should accelerate, as much as we can, the payment of the agreed funding to operators of cafes, restaurants and hotels. But the solution isn’t to go out and break the rules. The sanctions are clear: if someone commits a violation, they’ll be fined something between 150,000 and 1 million forints. They may not even be asked to present identification documents at their place of business, because modern technology means that identifying people in the event of such a violation isn’t an impossible task. So everyone should be aware of this, and I’m asking them not to do it. If they still decide to do so, those breaking the rules will pay between 150,000 and 1 million forints, and the restaurant will be closed down – first for six months, which will be the minimum period, and then for a year in the event of a repeat offence. Additionally, the operator of such a restaurant will be banned from operating any others for six months or one year. Believe me, it’s not worth it.
It’s certainly not, but they say that while wage support is a good thing, government offices have so far only paid out 7 billion of the 27 billion forints which has been requested. They say that the process is slow, and are concerned that they won’t receive their money.
Yes, but trust…
Though if I’m not mistaken, applications can be submitted up until 8 February, can’t they?
Yes, but trust us, the money will be sent. I’ve received the letter from them on this. At the Cabinet meeting we adopted a decision on accelerating the procedure. I trust that we’ll be able to keep our word. So trust us. They’ll receive the money they’re entitled to.
When will the economy be able to restart? The employment data for December is promising, because we can see that 4,000 more people were in work in December than in November. But the economy should still be given a boost once we’ve been freed from these restrictions.
Yes, but here too everything depends on the vaccine. However surprising it may sound, the vaccine is also the key issue for the economy. We reviewed the latest numbers at the Operational Group’s meeting this morning. From yesterday morning to this morning there were 83 deaths and 1,459 new infections. There are 3,649 of our fellow Hungarians in hospital, with 258 on assisted ventilation. Vaccination is making good progress, and we’ve completed the vaccination of healthcare workers. We’re now vaccinating residents and staff in care homes, and by the end of the week we’ll have completed that, too. This is perhaps a good opportunity for me to thank those working in social institutions, because normally we only ever talk about doctors and nurses. We have every reason to talk about them, but that’s no reason to forget the many people working with great compassion and dedication to help our compatriots in care homes. We should salute them as well, and they deserve our recognition. This is why they’re high on the vaccination priority list, and we’ll have completed their vaccination by Sunday. A completely new phase will begin, which is also important from the economy’s point of view: from the beginning of next week, registration-based vaccination will start. From now on, we’ll be able to vaccinate those who have registered. In this, too, we have a set order, beginning with the oldest, with chronically ill patients, and so on. The essence is that up until now we’ve gone to hospitals and care homes and we’ve been able to vaccinate everyone who agreed there on site, because everyone was in one place. But from now on this will no longer be the case. There are ten million of us, and we all live wherever we live. Now we’re able to call up for vaccination all those who’ve registered for it. So I ask everyone who wants to be vaccinated – and vaccination is voluntary and free – to register; because if they don’t register, we won’t know that they want to be inoculated, and they won’t receive notification or a phone call. But from next week, those who’ve registered will be notified, they’ll be informed where to go and when, what time or which part of the day is best for their vaccination. This is a new phase. The big question is how many people will register. Around two million of us have done so, but we all know that this isn’t enough for the whole of society to gain immunity. So I urge everyone to register and be vaccinated. I will have myself vaccinated when it’s my turn. I’m often asked, and I say I’ll wait for the Chinese vaccine, which is the one I trust the most. But we’re not all the same, and other people will trust other vaccines. When we were children, we were inoculated with Soviet vaccines, and so there are some who trust the Russian vaccine the most. There are others who think about the vaccine in ideological terms: they want vaccines from the West, not the East. My standpoint is that the Chinese have known this virus the longest, so I believe that they probably also know the most about it. Anyway I’m waiting for my turn, and if at that point I have a choice of vaccines, I’ll ask for the Chinese one.
Registration is important. There are some, however, like the Mayor of Gyöngyös: he didn’t even register, it wasn’t even his turn, but he was vaccinated at the beginning of January. What’s your opinion on this?
No one’s happy about this. I understand that everyone fears for their life and wants to be safe. This is a basic human instinct that one can understand. But we must also appreciate that there are some who are in an even more difficult situation than we are. And those who are in an even more difficult situation than we are should – and from a legal point of view must – be given priority. I ask everyone – however worried they are about their own lives or the lives of their loved ones – to try to accept the protocol; because as there aren’t enough vaccines, some kind of order must be set up. There’s a reason for this. The members of the Government could have decided to be among the very first to be vaccinated, and there are countries where that’s what has happened. But what kind of behaviour would that have been? Partly cowardly, and partly a bad example. Therefore members of the Government will also have to wait their turn. We’ll be vaccinated when it’s the turn of police and military personnel, or decision-makers needed for the defence operation. People over sixty with chronic illnesses must definitely come before us. So I ask everyone to reject such deviations, and to try to accept this very difficult situation. I understand that one’s life might depend on only a day or two, but there’s an order, and we must remember that there are Hungarians in more difficult situations than us, and we must keep this in mind when making our decisions. So we must observe these rules. Naturally the law will be enforced, and the relevant penalties will be applied, as is usual. But I don’t want to talk about this in the context of punishment; I want to gain people’s understanding.
If there are several different vaccines in sufficient quantities, could a Hungarian citizen next in line in terms of registration say that they want one particular vaccine and not another? If the possibility exists, will they be able to choose?
I think so; and if the vaccine they want isn’t available, we’ll record that and notify them when we get it. I’d love to have to deal with the problem of having three or four different vaccines…
We’d be spoilt for choice.
…and asking which one people want. But at the moment there aren’t enough vaccines. And, looking at the jostling and fracas in Brussels, as far as I can see vaccines won’t be coming from there any faster than we’d planned or expected. So it’s important for us to also be able to import vaccines from other places where they’ve already been tested and have proved effective: vaccines which our healthcare experts have also tested. For me the most inspiring example is Serbia, because it’s right here on our doorstep, just over the border; it’s a neighbouring state with which we have sincerely warm relations. We don’t simply cooperate on a rational basis; cooperation between the two countries has gone beyond that. There’s also an emotional aspect to it, and I believe that friendship will gradually blossom. For this reason I always closely follow events over there, and I see that they’re vaccinating people with the Chinese vaccine. If I’m not mistaken, in terms of the rate of vaccination they’re ranked first, second or third in Europe. No EU country is ranked at the top, because we’re part of the EU, but those who are outside and have taken care of their own affairs are doing well. And Serbia is also doing very well. Two things follow from this. First of all, Serbia is a serious country. It has been able to organise its own supply – better than those who are part of the EU. Secondly, what we have here is an anteroom – perhaps the word “laboratory” isn’t appropriate, but in effect that’s what it is – where they’re trying out for us the vaccines which we’re not yet sure about, if I may put it that way. Every day I ask for a separate report on how many people in Serbia have been vaccinated and whether there were any problems. I ask about Hungarians, because Hungarians also live there. So I ask if Hungarians have also been vaccinated, and what their personal experiences are. All this will have to be built into the decisions we make here. Experience is always the most valuable knowledge.
A few minutes before you arrived in the studio there was a report about the town of Magyarkanizsa [Kanjiža in Serbian]. Over there 600 persons asked to be vaccinated, 133 of them asking for the Pfizer vaccine and 450 or 500 for the Chinese vaccine.
Let’s not forget that earlier Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, and here the official communist line was to call Tito “the chained dog”. This meant that although there were communists in Yugoslavia, they didn’t unconditionally surrender to Moscow. They were always somewhat maverick, unlike the ones here in Hungary. So in countries like Hungary the idea that the West is good and the East is bad became completely automatic – especially after the 1956 Revolution. This was despite the fact that Budapest was bombed by the British and the Americans in World War II. That fact was overshadowed by Soviet occupation at the end of World War II, and then again in 1956. Therefore in Hungary there’s the automatic assumption – which isn’t too sophisticated, but understandable and based on experience – that the West is fundamentally good, and the East is fundamentally dangerous or bad. There was never such a notion in Yugoslavia, which pursued its own path and stood on its own national foundations. Over there they said that there are things at which the West is better, and there are others at which the East is better. They were also allowed to travel, if you remember. In our younger days my wife and I even went there on our honeymoon, because it seemed semi-Western. So in terms of the East versus the West, the Serbian people’s thinking differs from ours, because they have a different historical background.
When could the Chinese and Russian vaccines arrive in Hungary?
I’m looking at a chart, which I go to bed with and wake up with. It contains the number of vaccines we’ve signed contracts for each week, how many will arrive, and what other sources are still open. If everything goes well, today or tomorrow we’ll be able to sign a contract with the Chinese for the supply of vaccines. We can therefore expect supplies from there. It’s not yet on my chart, however, as we don’t yet have a contract. If the Chinese vaccines aren’t forthcoming, then by the beginning of March we’ll be able to provide initial vaccinations for 880,000 people, with each person receiving their second dose 21 days later. If we also receive Chinese vaccines, the number could be as much as twice that. And if we also receive Russian vaccines we could vaccinate at an even faster rate. Therefore we’ll be able to find ourselves in a radically different situation sometime around Easter. I believe that some time around Easter we’ll have to consider very many issues, because by then some questions regarding the easing of restrictions could be on the agenda – whether we should open up the country in one step, or gradually in multiple steps. Perhaps rules for people who are already immune should be different from those for people who aren’t yet immune. So on the horizon I can see that at some point these questions will build up, but it’s still only the end of January now, not the beginning of April. So we haven’t yet needed to concern ourselves with these questions. Now we must concentrate all our efforts on the procurement of vaccines. And if there are vaccines, these questions will be brought to the fore; and sometime around the middle of March not only could the Government start debating it, but the whole country on a wide basis.
Let’s also say a few words about the Brussels procurements, because it’s rather interesting. The European Union’s weakness in pursuing its interests is highlighted by the fact that, all of a sudden, they’re sitting down to talk with the pharmaceutical companies to improve the situation somewhat. And AstraZeneca haven’t even been prepared to have talks with the European Commission. This says a lot about where the great EU is heading.
We can’t see the cards, this is a bubble. Now is not the time to beat up on the Brusseleers over this. There are things that we shouldn’t beat up on them about, but instead express our appreciation. For instance, I think we’ll do well in relaunching the economy. Anyway, this is certainly a bubble, and we don’t know exactly what’s going on there. We don’t know whether there are political games, we don’t know whether there are business games, we just don’t know.
But isn’t it a problem that we don’t know?
Well, we made a decision. I could be crucified for this, and there’s a possibility I might deserve it, but with the 26 prime ministers we made a decision. This doesn’t diminish my responsibility; it merely explains the situation. We said that we’d transfer to Brussels nations’ rights in the procurement of vaccines, and agreed that we should take part in a joint procurement effort. We agreed that on our behalf Brussels should bargain with Western manufacturers, conclude contracts, and distribute the vaccines. We made this decision. There’s no use crying over spilt milk now. This is the situation. At the time we made this decision we knew that whatever Brussels might promise we wouldn’t have access to the details of such a complex negotiation process, and being fully aware of this we handed over decision-making powers. I didn’t hand over the power to decide on procuring vaccines from elsewhere, but we handed over to them the right to conduct talks and sign contracts with Western manufacturers. Therefore we knew – and anyone who claims otherwise is deluded – that this meant that we wouldn’t see the details involved in the decisions being made. We can call them to account on keeping to deadlines and ensuring that distribution is fair and honest. At the moment the problem we have is not that the order in which vaccines are distributed isn’t fair: the problem is that there’s nothing to distribute, because they were unable to procure enough vaccines. Anyway, all I can say is that now that we’ve delegated this right to them, we should take 100 per cent advantage of the right which we’ve retained for ourselves: the right to procure vaccines from elsewhere. We should procure Russian vaccines, we should procure Chinese vaccines, we should procure American vaccines, and let’s talk to the Israelis. This is what’s happening, day by day. So let’s procure vaccines from elsewhere, knowing that Brussels will either succeed or they won’t. But we can’t afford to stand only on that one Western leg: we must stand on the other leg, too, because you can only stand firm when you have both feet on the ground.
Let’s return for a minute…
Sorry, what I want to say – and this also follows on from what I’ve said – is that the vaccine must not be turned into a political issue. This is not a question of East or West. Earlier I spoke at length about the Serbs thinking differently about this. The vaccine is not a political issue. We can only choose between Eastern and Western vaccines if we have them. If we don’t, there’s nothing to choose from.
Let’s return to the economy for a minute. What government measures can be expected? What are your plans?
We’ve adopted a number of decisions. We adopted seemingly minor decisions, but also important ones of enormous magnitude. The situation is that until we manage to secure massive amounts of vaccine, the top priority will be protecting jobs. But once we have enough vaccines and the country reopens, the economy will need to be relaunched. This is what we call the economic relaunch action plan. We’ve adopted its first few chapters, and we’ve also decided on the first recovery measures, which will be worth six thousand billion forints. These are great things. But we’ve also decided on some lesser affairs which are nevertheless crucial for some people. For instance, in Hungary there are around three hundred settlements where there are no longer any small shops. And there are a few hundred where sometimes there are such shops and at other times there aren’t, where shops are on the brink of oblivion. As part of the Hungarian Villages Programme we’ve developed a system – State Secretary Gyopáros will talk about this – which will offer funding to ensure that shops are available as a service in every village, including the smallest villages. Now, as regards great things, we’re cooperating with the European Union. We have the strange situation – or perhaps it’s not so strange at all – that there are two issues on which we are Brussels’ closest allies: digitalisation of the economy and greening the economy, developing a circular economy. On these two issues, we’re fully cooperating with Brussels as closely as possible. Naturally we don’t see eye to eye on family values and migration, but on the issues of the green economy and the digital economy we are – I’ll repeat these words, and let’s savour them – Brussels’ closest allies. This is despite the fact that the commissioner responsible for these issues isn’t a friend of Hungary. What matters here, however, isn’t personal political affairs, but cooperation between countries. These decisions mean that, in cooperation with the European Union, we’ve distributed the funds at our disposal across nine areas. Mentioning them all would create a long list. The most important fact I’d like to tell you is that the single biggest winner of this economic recovery action plan is higher education. I say this in all modesty, but the next few years will see the launch of a university development programme in Hungary which is unprecedented in our country’s history. Over the coming year or two we’ll be investing 1,500 billion forints in Hungarian universities. This is one reason I always suggest that every institution considers making its operations more effective and modern. This is why I suggest a change of model. Each university is free to decide on this, but it’s in their interest to engage in it, because at the present level of performance only a fraction of the amount invested will be recovered. Our universities will be able to properly use such an enormous amount if they become far more effective than they are at present. This is a historic opportunity for Hungary. Anyway, the largest investment sums will be directed to our universities. It’s my firm belief that science, research and higher education will become the true engine of the next decade, and that the sector will be able to boost, ratchet up and drive forward the economy. Naturally there will also be a reduction in VAT on housing construction, we’ll provide support of three million forints to everyone who wants to refurbish their home and thereby improve their family’s situation, and we’ll also provide preferential loans for these projects. We’ll do very many things in addition to major projects, digitalisation, the green economy and universities. We’ll have a lot of work on our hands. In the coming weeks we’ll decide on the next developments worth several thousand billion forints. We’re fortunate in having continuously fought such debates in Parliament over the past few years. We’ve thoroughly discussed these issues: the green economy, the circular economy, climate change and the modernisation of the Hungarian economy have been permanently on our agenda. Therefore I believe that in the period ahead we and I – together with the European Union – will be able to use the funds available to Hungary in a way the public wants us to.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.