Katalin Nagy: On Thursday the Government decided on tightening restrictions, with further details promised for today, for Friday. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. We were hoping for an easing of restrictions, but instead they’re being tightened. Was this absolutely necessary?
Good morning, and good morning to your listeners. We had no choice. These are epidemiological issues: what’s going to happen, what trends can be observed, what’s driving what, what’s making the numbers rise and what’s making them fall. We heard from several groups of epidemiological experts, and they expressed themselves very clearly: they said that unless we take action the result will be tragedy. So now we have no time to lose. The Government listened to these arguments and accepted the advice. Doctors said that we must tighten the restrictions now in order to be able to open up later. Although it’s almost irrelevant, I don’t like this form of expression; because it reminds me of my dear departed youth, when we were taught that, according to the dogmas of Marxism and Leninism, the state will die by first gaining in strength. So I have reservations about approaches of this kind, but this is the situation: we must increase restrictions now so that we can open up sometime around Easter. We’ll keep the consultation running until 15 March. By then we’ll have all the opinions, and in the week after 15 March we’ll plan the steps that will allow us to gradually open up at Easter. This is more or less the timeline for our actions.
What further restrictions will there be? We’ve heard that nursery and elementary schools will be closed for a month, while shops will have to close for two weeks, with the usual exceptions: health and personal care stores, pharmacies and grocery stores or supermarkets. What will be the rules for services?
First of all, what we’re in now is the third wave. And we can already say that the second wave was bigger than the first one, and the third wave will be bigger than the second one was. This means that we must prepare for the most difficult period, and our measures must also adapt to this fact. This is why we’ve decided that the rules that have applied to secondary schools so far will remain in effect. They’ve had online teaching over the past months. This will now be the same in elementary and nursery schools. We’ve given a lot of thought to crèches. We’ve looked at the numbers, carried out analyses, and perhaps crèches will also have to be closed; but for the time being the number of infections in crèches is so low that we’ll try to keep them open. As regards services, everything which is essential for daily life will have to remain available, so supermarkets, and shops selling the essentials for spring gardening and work-related supplies will stay open. But everything else – including restaurants, casinos, hotels and electronics stores – will all have to close. The most difficult case is the rule on selling flowers, as the poor florists sell perishable goods, and now they only have one weekend left. What’s more, it’s International Women’s Day on 8 March. I’d like to take this opportunity to send my regards to Hungarian women and girls. On the 8th, on Monday, florists will be allowed to remain open so that we can pay tribute to women and girls, and so that florists can sell their stock. But after that they, too, will have to close. This is very difficult for them; and not only for the services sector, but for everyone else as well. Therefore at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting the Ministry of Finance tabled proposals for wage support funding – which previously only applied to tourism-related sectors – to be extended to all the sectors which are affected by the current restrictions. They’ll also be eligible for tax exemptions, with the smallest not required to pay taxes during this period; and in this period we’ll also suspend rent payment requirements for tenants of business properties owned by local governments and the state. This won’t only be for these two weeks in which the tightest restrictions are being applied, but for the whole of March. They’ll also receive wage support funding and enjoy tax reductions for the whole of March.
Will they be required to apply for wage support funding?
We’ll use the same method that we used for hotels and restaurants. We’ll extend that system.
What about travel? What restrictions can we expect?
With travel in Europe, for the time being we’re maintaining the present system, which is a strict one. The problem now is that virus variants are being brought into Hungary from abroad: our fellow Hungarians are bringing mutations into the country on their return from exotic holiday destinations: Tanzania, the Maldives or Dubai. Even though the latter has perhaps the highest vaccination rate, I ask everyone to postpone these luxury vacations to dangerous destinations. This isn’t because we’re envious, as if they have money, they should go ahead; but it’s because they could bring home virus variants, mutations that have been unknown so far and could endanger others – not themselves, but others. We’ve already seen several cases of this. Therefore I strongly ask everyone to postpone such travel plans.
Professor Merkely had said that at the Semmelweis University Clinic there are now as many patients as there were in November – or perhaps a few more. This is a warning sign. The big question is whether the healthcare system will be able to cope. This is all the more a question because only 96.3 per cent – and not 100 per cent – of healthcare workers have signed the new healthcare service terms and conditions.
I came here from a meeting of the Operational Group. We were dealing with these questions from early morning. While we have a slight technical problem with vaccinations, by and large the vaccination plan is in order and we’re making good progress. We’ve vaccinated 862,953 people. The number of registrations is rising. Vaccination cannot be made compulsory, and will remain voluntary. As of this morning, 2,813,668 people have registered. This number is rising nicely, and as I see it, we won’t have a problem with this. According to the chart that I’m working from, by the first week of April – we’ll continue vaccinations every day, even through Easter – we’ll have reached 2.4 million vaccinations. By the beginning of May we’ll have reached 4.7 million. Then we’ll see how we can procure more vaccines; but by the beginning of July we’ll be able to go above 8 million. This means that in theory we’ll have vaccinated everyone. So this part of the situation is fine, and I don’t see any problems there. It’s being well managed by public administration, healthcare experts, general practitioners and hospitals. It’s the hospitals that will have to bear the brunt of the pressure and where we must prepare for dramatic situations, dramatic challenges; because the number of people requiring hospitalisation will increase. Today we confirmed 6,369 new cases, and we’ve lost 143 compatriots. There are 677 people who require assisted ventilation. The average age of those who have passed away was 75.5 years – so it’s still the elderly that are most at risk. There are 6,867 people in hospital. This number will rise perhaps to around 15,000 – or even 20,000. This morning we heard reports from the hospital commanders and the National Director General for Hospitals on how we’ll be able to cope with this situation. It will require hospital beds, ventilators and staff. As regards staff, we’ll be practising secondment: in addition to using internal reserves, we’ll move staff between hospitals, and we’ll also bring in residents and final-year medical students. We may further be forced to require the involvement of private healthcare workers. As we speak, experts are working on the details of a plan for this. There will be enough beds, there will be enough ventilators, and there will also be enough staff.
On Sunday you received your first injection. Did you experience any reaction?
I went to work. It may have a stimulating effect.
Weren’t there any problems at all?
No, none. Of course, I’m not an expert on this. There are five different vaccines, and it’s very difficult to decide which one to place one’s faith in, because one can look at it in different ways. Throughout our childhood we were inoculated with Soviet vaccines, so we have no reservations about the Russian vaccine. The virus started in China, though the Chinese now say that it was introduced from abroad. We don’t know the exact details, but there’s no doubt that over there they’ve known about this virus for longer than anyone else. At the same time, this much I understand: they’re employing the most traditional method, injecting people with a weakened form of the virus – which is just what we’re used to. Therefore I believe that as this is a weakened virus, the vaccine in my body contains every element of it, and my system will produce antibodies against every possible problem, every mutation. This is what I’ve placed my faith in, and this is why I chose the Chinese vaccine. At the same time, there’s Katalin Karikó – who I’ve spoken with on the phone – who’s said that you don’t need the whole virus, but only need to separate away part of it with different, new methods. So for those who place more faith in scientific innovations there’s Pfizer’s technology. There are many different options. I’m old-fashioned, and I chose the method used in all the vaccinations I’ve ever had. This is why I opted for the Chinese vaccine. The Chinese are honouring their contractual obligations to the letter. Our orders from the European Union are a tragedy: deliveries are constantly delayed and rescheduled. The Russians are more or less keeping…
Are you saying that there’s some technical problem related to vaccinations?
No, there’s another problem related to vaccinations. Let me finish talking about the first one. So the Chinese are delivering on time, and the Russians are in essence keeping to the schedule, with only minor delays. The vaccines ordered from the West – the vaccines distributed by the EU – are unreliable in terms of when and how they arrive. Now of course we have a problem with vaccination which isn’t related to the availability of vaccines, but to technical issues. So far we’ve been vaccinating people in smaller numbers, but now we’re beginning vaccinations in larger numbers. So far general practitioners have been inoculating people, and they know their patients in person. We could say that vaccination has been based on personal relations. Now that we’re beginning mass vaccination, we must change over to a data-based system. In data-based vaccination, if the data isn’t right then nothings right. That’s the basis of everything. And sometimes people who have already been vaccinated are being invited in for vaccination. We’re also receiving reports of people being required to attend vaccination points very far from where they live. Therefore the whole system has to be reset. We made a decision on this, too, this morning. Data will have to be reviewed. A very large number of people don’t actually live where they’re registered as having their permanent residence. Some people haven’t seen their general practitioners for years, and their places of residence have changed in the interim; they’ve somehow been removed from the system, and in many cases residential records aren’t up-to-date. So there are problems with the organisation of data-based vaccination. We’re rectifying these. This morning we’ve decided that a separate operational unit will be set up to rectify these errors. Wherever vaccination becomes a mass exercise, invitation for vaccination based on personal acquaintance is no longer enough.
In the vaccination plan…
Sorry, but it’s very important that we have a telephone number. I’ve asked [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller to inform members of the public every day about this number which people can call if they notice any problems, whether about the system or themselves. This will be a channel for advice on what can be done and how it can be done in order to correct errors.
Can you tell us this number now?
No, unfortunately, I haven’t got it on me.
Cecília Müller will do that. Fine. The vaccination plan also had to be changed, so that as many people as possible can receive at least their first injection as soon as possible. Has this presented any problems?
Not yet. We’re continuously monitoring scientific statements. There’s a worldwide knowledge problem, because it’s not been long since we started using the vaccines. So we don’t have much practical knowledge, and our knowledge tends to be gained through ongoing experience. So, for example, there are different scientific positions on when is the best time to administer the second dose after the first one. At the moment the prevailing scientific position is that we shouldn’t be afraid of exceeding the 21-day period. For instance, we’re insisting on no more than 28 days for the Chinese vaccine, and today with Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller we clarified that we must insist on this. But for the Western vaccines scientific analyses are continuously telling us that it’s possible to leave more time between the two doses. So instead of storing second doses of Western vaccines, we’re giving more first doses; because we see that a gap of 28 to 35 days – or even 40 – is permitted. The healthcare cabinet and the Chief Medical Officer are developing separate protocols for this, and these will be followed by general practitioners and doctors vaccinating in hospitals.
We mentioned that you’ve been given the Chinese vaccine. You know that some left-wing politicians don’t believe that it really was the Chinese vaccine, don’t you? This is one part of the question, and the other is that at the same time we’re seeing that other European countries are also turning to the Russian vaccine – or even want to procure Chinese vaccines.
I envy the problems of the Left. At the moment I see that the Left in Hungary is fighting against the Government instead of the virus. I think that this is a mistake: everyone should be fighting against the virus.
But they seemed to have changed their opinion; because the day before yesterday they said we should ease the restrictions, while now everyone’s saying that we should tighten them instead.
This depends on what Brussels tells them. When Brussels tells them that the Russian vaccine is bad, they say that the Russian vaccine is bad. If in Brussels it turns out that the Russian vaccine must also be considered as an option, they also start considering it as an opinion. If Brussels says that the Russian vaccine is good, then they say “Hurrah, bring in the Russian vaccine!” You can look at European politics in one of two ways. You can choose the national direction, which is the foundation that we stand on: we send our delegates to Brussels in order for them to represent Hungary and the Hungarian people in Brussels. The Left pursues the opposite path: they believe that they’re representing Brussels and Europe in Hungary. This is a different mentality. As a result, they always wait for Brussels to tell them where they should stand, and what line they should follow. And then that’s the line they’ll follow. This is how it used to be in the old days: Moscow used to tell them what line to follow, and they followed that line in Budapest. Now the same thing is happening – except that the directives are coming from a different capital. We resisted Moscow, and now we’re also resisting Brussels, if that’s what Hungarians’ interests dictate.
What do you think about the fact that the leaders of European countries are making increasingly loud demands for something to be done, for steps to be taken to allow the European Commission to finally enforce contracts and ensure the timely arrival of vaccine supplies? Youve mentioned that Hungary isn’t receiving as many vaccines as promised, and that they’re not arriving when promised. Is there anything that can be done about this?
The other night I cast a lawyer’s eye over these contracts that the Commission concluded with the large Western European pharmaceutical companies. Considering how much work they put into it, it would perhaps be unfair to call them a patchwork; but they didn’t focus on what is necessary. I don’t think that a legal intern making such contractual errors would be hired – or at least they’d be shown the door quite quickly. The problem is that our contracts are unenforceable. So this is what Brussels negotiated. Sometime in the summer we gathered together to decide on whether each country would individually conduct negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies and conclude contracts, or whether we’d leave this to Brussels to negotiate. Brussels, we thought, was probably better able to procure supplies rapidly; and it would probably be able to procure supplies more cheaply, because it could order massive amounts. And then we would distribute the vaccines procured by Brussels amongst ourselves in proportion to our populations, according to a fair quota – because there’s no problem with an honest, fair quota. This was the plan. We sent them off with the instruction that they should conclude contracts serving these aims. And they went off and concluded contracts. But now the situation is that vaccines aren’t arriving.
You said that we send our delegates to Brussels in order to represent the Hungarian position. It seems that in the European People’s Party this is no longer the starting point.
This is a sad story. Every government leader in Europe is fighting a life-and-death battle to protect the citizens of his or her country, his or her state from the virus. Meanwhile some people in this Brussels bubble are occupying themselves with the question of how to put one member party or another – us, for instance – into a difficult position through amendment of the statutes. We’ve thanked them and told them that we’ve had enough of all that.
But there was also an element of personal revenge on the part of Manfred Weber – despite him saying that building bridges is in his political DNA. This thought sounds so nice, doesn’t it?
Well, I don’t know a single European group leader in the European Parliament whose personal opinions could influence Hungary. And we’re not particularly interested in the state of mind of a single non-Hungarian MEP, either. Everyone should deal with their own problems.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the People’s Party Group, said that he’d like to talk to you as soon as possible. Did this happen?
No, but no doubt it will. Go for it, Mr Weber, go for it!
Youve left the Group…
You remember the very old theatrical story about an actor called Suka, who went to see the theatre director Tamás Major to ask for a pay rise. Major refused, and then Suka said, “At least you could give me some encouragement.” So Major said, “Go for it, Suka!” So, go for it Weber!
We’ve spoken about the need for vaccines, and that more and more will arrive. You’re saying that there’s nothing wrong with the Eastern vaccines.
They’re arriving – in fact the Chinese ones are arriving sooner than scheduled. We’re doing everything we can. [Foreign Minister] Péter Szijjártó is bearing the greatest responsibility involved, but right now Péter is bearing up well. He has to continuously make arrangements with foreign ministers to ensure that vaccines not only arrive on time, but earlier than scheduled if possible, and in even larger quantities than those agreed on, if possible. This is his daily work, and he’s making good progress. The Chinese have sent more vaccines than agreed – around fifty thousand more. And, even though there are slight fluctuations, the Russians are also in essence able to keep to their schedule. There’s enormous pressure on the Russians, because ever more European countries are making enquiries with them. I see that this resulted in a government debate in Slovakia, and that the Czechs have also made enquiries. One could say that there’s enormous demand in the market, with an abundance of customers; and, of course, politics is also in the mix. It’s difficult to ensure that you’ll receive what you contracted for, but our daily work – the daily work of the Foreign Ministry – means that we’ve managed this so far.
Returning to the European People’s Party, Fidesz has left the Group. Do you want to leave the European People’s Party as a whole? Where next? What are your thoughts on this?
Obviously one can’t choose two conflicting solutions, so this is only a technical question. The other day I spoke at length with the new president of the CDU. We’ll probably have another consultation, but at the moment I have to say that in essence we’re going our separate ways.
And what was his opinion on this?
He’s a new person, a fine man, and a West German. So, unlike the present chancellor, he’s not from Germany’s eastern sphere, but from the West. He’s a Catholic, and on a number of questions of values this is what he has firmly stood for: he hasn’t voted for anything that’s incompatible with these values. So he’s a man of character – and a very successful state minister-president. He’s known for being able to unite different positions. I think he’s arrived on the scene too late.
You wrote in “Samizdat No. 6” that now a European democratic Right must be built without the People’s Party. What negotiations are you conducting on this matter?
We’ve been speaking to the Poles, I’ve spoken to Hungary’s great friend Mr. Matteo Salvini, and we’ve also spoken to the president of another Italian right-wing party, Ms. Meloni. We’re busy. Naturally we’ve always kept a drawer full of all sorts of proposals about how European politics should be renewed. Everyone feels that our voice in Europe has been weak when it comes to our opinions on the greatest issues of our age: that migrants should not come here; that we shouldn’t have multiculturalism; that we should respect Christian traditions; that national sovereignty exists, and that nations aren’t a thing of the past, but of the future. Our opinions aren’t being represented with the weight they deserve. Voters who share our views on these issues don’t have enough influence in European politics. Like-minded people who have always held these views have always been in contact, and we’ve talked and thought a great deal about what could be done. The situation now is that our hands are much freer, and we can pursue our own path. There’s no need to rush things, but these talks, these consultations, must be accelerated. What matters is that in Europe there should be a political home for people of our kind: people who want to protect their families, who want to protect their countries, and who prefer cooperation among nations rather than a European empire. They should not only have a political home in their own countries, because we – Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party – are fine here; but they should also have a home at a European level. We must work to create this. I think that this political current will be a major force in Europe.
Returning to what you mentioned earlier, about the fact that you’re awaiting people’s opinions in the consultation up until the deadline of 15 March, what should we hope for if we’re able to show discipline in tolerating these restrictions for two weeks?
On what we need to do now, the experts’ opinions weren’t as clear as they were when deciding on the starting point. When I ask them to give an approximate depiction of the future development of the number of new infections and the number of people in direct danger, and how these numbers compare with the ever-increasing number of people who are being vaccinated, they draw contrasting lines, trends and diagrams. There are some who say that these latest restrictions will enable us to break the third wave after 10 or 12 days; there are some who say that it will take 14 days; and there are others who say that after 14 days we’ll need to be cautious in lifting the restrictions and not do so all at once, because we might even trigger a fourth wave. So expert opinions on this matter vary. But luckily we’ll only have to deal with this question when we get there in two weeks’ time. One thing is certain: with these latest restrictions for two weeks, we’ve turned a corner and are in the home straight. We’re in the last phase of the war against the virus, and we’re in the home straight. And if we tighten the lockdown restrictions now, I believe that in two weeks’ time we’ll indeed be able to start the gradual lifting of restrictions. So as I said at the beginning of this interview, referring to our bad memories of communism, it’s true that if we tighten restrictions now we’ll be able to ease them later.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.