Katalin Nagy: We’re living and dying through the third wave of the pandemic. If we look around, we can see that not a single country in Europe has been able to avoid a rise in the number of infections. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Two weeks ago you said that we were facing our most difficult week, or weeks. What projection are the epidemiological mathematicians working with now? When will the third wave of the pandemic peak?
Good morning to your listeners. I’ve come here from a meeting of the Operational Group, where I had an opportunity to hear the latest reports from police officers, the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Health. These meetings are also attended by disease control experts. The question is not when we’ll reach the peak, but how quickly we’ll start the downward trend. At present no one can say for sure whether we’ll go up and then the numbers will start decreasing rapidly, or whether we’ll go up and then before we start heading down there will be what the disease control experts call a longer “plateau phase”. For the time being I’d rather not engage in predictions. What we can say are these facts: yesterday, we lost 275 compatriots; there are 11,823 patients in hospital, including 1,480 requiring assisted ventilation. Our doctors are performing a superhuman feat. We must thank them, nurses, and the hospital managers who are organising the work. Doctors and nurses have double their normal workload: on the one hand, they’re treating people – patients in hospital, COVID patients and people in hospital for other reasons – and on the other hand they must vaccinate people. So everyone is very tired, indeed exhausted; but at present they’re fighting heroically. Our reserves aren’t looking bad, as we have 10,343 reserve beds and another 1,693 ventilators: approximately half of our total capacity. We also have reserves of staff, although they’re by no means unlimited. We’re reallocating staff, and we’ve also brought in external personnel: 500 trained healthcare professionals have volunteered their services, and 1,200 medical students – in their fifth and sixth years – have also been deployed. So 1,200 of them have volunteered so far, and many more are now offering their services. We haven’t yet needed to resort to our final pool of reserves, who are people commuting to work elsewhere: many healthcare workers – especially near our western border – travel to Austria every day to work in healthcare jobs over there. If we can avoid it, we’d rather not deploy them, recruit them for the Hungarian defence operation – they’ve already had the chance to offer their services if they want to. We don’t want to jolt them out of their usual lives, unless we absolutely have to. As far as I can see, however, for the time being we can avoid this.
Healthcare specialists also work for private medical providers, while general practitioners could also be seconded as a last resort. The problem with general practitioners, however, is that they’re needed for vaccination.
That’s right, but this is a very difficult period now, and we’re experiencing the most difficult weeks of the pandemic. This is not only the case in Hungary. It’s known as the third wave. We have this third wave because a mutation – a variant called the British mutation – has become dominant. In effect it’s replacing the earlier virus strain, and it’s infecting people across the whole of Europe. We need to understand that this virus variant is capable of infecting three times as many people as the previous variant. So it’s spreading much faster. What’s more, it also affects younger people. Therefore I have a special request for young people. Earlier I always said that I ask young people to observe the disease control regulations because they’re not the only ones in the world: there are elderly people – and the older they are, the more they’re directly threatened by the virus. This is also the case now, except that now I’m also asking them to obey the rules for their own good; because this virus or mutation – the British mutation – also knocks young people off their feet. Ever more young people are being hospitalised, and are finding it difficult to get out. This virus results in a more extended, more painful disease for young people than the previous virus strain did. So I ask young people to pay attention to obeying the rules: not only for their parents and grandparents – though they’re just as important – but most of all for themselves.
Next week is Holy Week, and we’re preparing for Easter. What restrictions – or perhaps easing of them – can we expect?
Now I can say that vaccination is our primary – or only – means of defence against the virus. At the same time, vaccination depends on the availability of vaccines. Hungary would be able to administer several times the number of vaccines we’re currently administering, because we have enough doctors, nurses and healthcare personnel for this task. The reason we’re unable to vaccinate more people is that we haven’t got enough vaccine. And of course this pains us. But until late into the night yesterday we held a summit of European prime ministers, which due to the pandemic was in the form of a video conference. And while I have problems, and Hungary has plenty of problems, you’d have been surprised if you’d seen the numbers and data from the others compared with ours: how many vaccines they have, how many people they’re able to vaccinate and what serious difficulties this is causing them. Countries which didn’t order and take action in time to also procure vaccines from the East and which are relying on those ordered from the West by Brussels are way behind us. They’ve only been able to vaccinate half as many people as we have, and over time this difference will increase. Now I need to quote our figures off the top of my head. In April and May we’ll be able to administer one and a half times as many doses as we have done in March. Then we’ll have the most vaccine: in April and May we’ll have at least as much vaccine from the East as from the West. We’re talking about batches of several million. For those countries without these, there’s a doubt as to whether they can have freedom in the summer. I have no doubt whatsoever that in Hungary we’ll have a summer of freedom, because I can see the numbers and I can see the vaccines. If you’re interested, I can also say a few words about that. I can see the schedule of reopening. I know that we’ll have freedom in the summer. We’re on a one-way road to freedom, as the British prime minister put it. This is also true of us in Hungary, even though we’ve been somewhat delayed. The other countries will have to struggle very hard in order to have a better summer than they had last year.
Charles Michel said that the European Union is trying to accelerate the production and procurement of vaccines. At the same time, this week we heard some outrageous details about the authorities finding 29 million AstraZeneca vaccines in a storage facility somewhere in Italy, which were about to be packaged and transported out of the European Union. If they were indeed bound for Britain, one asks oneself what kind of contract the British concluded with the pharmaceutical company which caused it to comply in full, while ever since they started shipments these companies – AstraZeneca included – can only tell the European Union that they’re delivering, but can only send a third of the amount agreed.
The task of procuring vaccines from the Western world’s pharmaceutical companies was given to Brussels by the prime ministers – myself included. I’m afraid that I must accept my share of responsibility for that. This was a bad decision. There are some who continue to repeat that this was a good decision, but you know how it is when someone can’t abandon a position because they constantly want to prove that they’re not to blame. The truth is that we botched this: we made a bad decision. The prime ministers should have said that each country should take care of its vaccine procurements itself, and everyone should independently negotiate with the manufacturers.
But that was prohibited.
No one held a gun to my head, and we could have said no. But at the time the collective wisdom was that we were perhaps more likely to succeed together. Taking ourselves as the model, we also assumed that the Brusselites were working just as hard and just as fast as us, that this was just as important for them as it was for us, and that their criteria were identical to ours. As far as I can see, their main criterion was the procurement price. For us, however, price is not paramount. I’m not saying that money grows on trees, but compared with lives, money is only a secondary consideration. The truly important factor is time. Brussels pushed the prices down. Fair enough; but there are no vaccines. So given the choice, I’d rather go for more expensive vaccines…
There are no cheap vaccines.
If there are no cheap vaccines, more expensive ones are better. But the truth is that the priorities are perfectly clear for us politicians, who meet voters every day, who have a responsibility towards our own people, our own voters. We’re in a different environment from that of the people who sit in a Brussels bubble, who receive their salaries from Brussels, who night and day only meet one another, and somehow float above nations. Even if they’re decent people trying to do everything they can, they don’t see life as we do, and therefore they botched this. But this isn’t the time for that discussion, because now what we must do is save lives and vaccinate people; we can return to that later. Fortunately Péter Szijjártó – and for this we can’t praise his foresight enough – warned us as early as November that there would be problems. He said that the situation would be the same as it was in the market for ventilators: it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that alongside airport runways people from various countries would be elbowing one another out of the way, fighting for vaccines. Well, if such scenes wouldn’t be seen at airports, they’d be seen at factory gates. In November he told us not to hesitate, to ignore what others were saying and to remember that what matters is lives. He told us that we should go to Moscow and Beijing, we should negotiate with the Russians and the Chinese, and we should procure all the vaccines we can, because this is not an ideological or a political issue. In November the Government accepted the Foreign Minister’s advice. This is why we could negotiate, and this is why vaccines are now arriving from there. Those who are only just starting to negotiate with Beijing could see their turn coming only sometime in the summer; or those who are only just beginning to negotiate with Russia will have to join the queue of countries which are already waiting for vaccines. We’re in a very good position, right at the head of the queue, and both the Russians and the Chinese are delivering in a timely manner. We also reviewed the vaccine situation. I can tell you that there are 400,000 vaccines in circulation, with which we can vaccinate people. The number of people who have been vaccinated has passed 1.8 million, standing at 1,803,533; and 594,000 people – 600,000 soon – have received their second dose. There are 250,000 Russian vaccines in warehouses which are waiting to be released for use. We could administer these as early as tomorrow, but the Chief Medical Officer must carry out the necessary tests. Not many people know this, but I want to tell you that the vaccines we’ve received can’t automatically be sent to doctors and general practitioners; first we must subject them to inspection here in Hungary. And once that’s been completed, then we can release these supplies, as they say, and we can start delivering them. This can take a few days – or sometimes even weeks, depending on the documentation available to the Chief Medical Officer. Naturally, I put pressure on [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller, but she doesn’t yield; and she’s right not to do so, because it’s her duty to make sure that supplies are as safe as possible. Anyway, there are 250,000 Russian vaccines waiting to be released, and if Cecília Müller releases them they can be used for inoculation. And we also have 517,000 vaccines in storage, waiting to be used as second doses. We can’t use them now, because they’re the counterparts of first doses which have already been administered, and which need to be administered at the end of the specified period between the two doses – which varies from vaccine to vaccine. So we have a complete picture of the storage situation: we know how many vaccines we have, and we know what’s coming when. So now we’re in the situation of being able to talk about reopening. Immediate reopening is out of the question, however. At today’s meeting of the Operational Group I again attempted to argue for the reopening of shops or the resumption of services. But the opinion of the disease control experts was clear: as long as the number of new infections is this high, no easing of any kind can be allowed. We can change the operating procedures for shops, and this can be done by the Operational Group this afternoon, at the latest. We’ve set the ground rules: we’ll change over to opening rules based on floor area. This means that only one person per ten square metres of floor area will be allowed in a shop at any one time. This won’t be easy to observe and monitor. So there will be queues outside shops, and therefore shops will have to be allowed to remain open longer. The Operational Group’s proposal, which we’ll finalise tomorrow, is that – instead of 8 p.m. – people should be allowed to be outdoors until 10 p.m., or even 11 p.m. We haven’t yet decided on that. And we should allow shops to stay open later than 7 p.m.: they shouldn’t have to close at 7, but at 9. Accordingly we should delay the beginning of restrictions on being outdoors to 10 p.m. They’re still discussing the details of this at the Operational Group meeting that I’ve just come from, and the detailed rules will be published in the Hungarian Gazette this afternoon – or tomorrow morning at the latest. There was a struggle over allowing hairdressers and beauticians to reopen. The Chamber of Commerce put this request forward to the Government, but the disease control experts rigidly resisted the idea. The talks about this are ongoing. This evening – or tomorrow morning at the latest – we’ll be able to tell you about the conclusions we came to, but in this regard the opinion of the disease control experts must take priority. The next question is about schools, and we also adopted decisions on that issue. There’s one thing I insist on in general: I believe that the opinion of disease control experts must be given priority. I think this is how it should be. And so I insist that we cannot speak of any easing of the restrictions until all our compatriots over the age of 65 who have registered have also been vaccinated, because those over 65 are most directly at risk. I believe that the worth of a country is reflected in how it treats its older compatriots. At the end of the day, it’s the over 65s who have brought the country to where we are today: they’ve borne the country on their backs, they’ve worked for it, and we have them to thank for the fact that we’re here today. Their needs cannot be ignored. I insist that every person over the age of 65 who has registered must receive the vaccine. Once they’ve received the vaccine and the immediate risk is over, we can talk about reopening. Restaurants are important, and it’s important for young people to see one another. All this is important, but I believe that the lives of elderly people are the most important. As far as we can see, we have vaccinated 71 per cent of people over the age of 65. We’ve already vaccinated everyone over the age of 85 who registered. There are still 49,000 of them who still haven’t been inoculated, because we’re finding it hard to locate them. These are everyday situations, like a family registering someone who doesn’t necessarily want to be vaccinated, or someone who doesn’t live at the address given in their registration, or someone whose general practitioner thinks that in their state of health it would be better for them not to be vaccinated. So at this stage it’s very difficult to give the vaccine to everyone who’s registered, because situations like this emerge when you approach completion. Anyway, what matters is that we’ve vaccinated 71 per cent of those over 65 who’ve registered, and we’re making good progress with their vaccination. We discussed expectant mothers, because earlier the medical opinion was that we shouldn’t vaccinate them. At today’s meeting of the Operational Group the disease control experts told us that expectant mothers can be inoculated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Therefore I now ask expectant mothers to register, and once they’ve registered their turn will come according to the order of vaccination. They can be inoculated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. As regards schools, the situation is that we can talk about reopening them once we’ve vaccinated every registered person over the age of 65. We’ll arrive at that point when we’ve carried out approximately 2.5 million vaccinations, which will be sometime during Holy Week, or the week after. At the same time, in order to reopen schools, we must also vaccinate people working in schools – but not the students themselves. Of course there will be a major debate about whether it’s right to give priority to teachers. They’re not in an easy position. They do a very important job – perhaps the most important one; because, at the end of the day, we entrust them with our children. The children of some families spend more time with their teachers than with their parents. So teachers’ work is especially valuable. At the same time, we know that some people criticise teachers on account of their extended summer holidays, and so not everyone in this country is well-disposed to them. The opinion that teachers don’t work in the summer, and so on, is very unfair. When my mother retired she was a special educational needs teacher, so I know both sides of this story very well. The situation now, however, is that if we want to allow our children back in school – which is important – we must vaccinate teachers. I ask everyone to accept this – including those who may have reservations about teachers. We must not only vaccinate teachers, but also other school staff. There are 102,000 registered ancillary staff members in schools, 20,000 of whom have already been vaccinated because it was their turn in the order of vaccination. So there are 82,000 registered ancillary staff members in schools whom we must vaccinate before we can reopen schools. As far as I can see, we’ll be able to vaccinate them by 10 April. Then we’ll have to wait eight or nine days for the vaccine to start working, which means that today we can say that there’s a realistic chance of schools being able to reopen on 19 April. On 19 April, the number of those who have already received their first dose of the vaccine will be over three million. So I’m telling everyone that nursery, elementary and secondary schools can likely reopen on 19 April.
Can the present rate of around fifty thousand vaccinations a day be maintained? Will we have enough vaccines for that? The two new vaccines that have been authorised in Hungary will obviously only feature in the next stage.
Yesterday we vaccinated perhaps 120,000 or 130,000 people. Hungary’s vaccination capacity is very high. I don’t want to embark on unnecessary philosophical debates, but believe me that if we had enough vaccines we could vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people in a single day. Vaccinations are being organised on the basis of weekly vaccination plans. I’m in daily contact with the state secretary who has responsibility for this; I hear his reports every day, and I can reassure you that our general practitioners are doing an excellent job. Of course there are exceptions, and you hear many things; but the truth is that the vast majority of general practitioners are decent, honest people who would do anything for their patients, their compatriots in their districts. There are always one or two exceptions who don’t want to vaccinate people, or who give priority to others. We know this because this is how life is, but believe me that these are only a few exceptions. The vast majority of general practitioners are making superhuman efforts, and are exercising due consideration in deciding on the order of those awaiting vaccination. So we trust that this will also be true in the future, and when it comes to vaccinations in the period ahead we won’t bypass general practitioners. There are countries which don’t use their general practitioners, and only operate hospital vaccination points. This isn’t the path we’ve been following. We have faith in our general practitioners, and so we’ve delegated primary responsibility for vaccination to them. Naturally when there are more vaccines the number of hospital vaccination points will also increase. We have plenty of vaccination points. What we need are not vaccination points, but vaccines. When there are vaccines, there will be vaccination points.
You’ve told us how many doses of vaccine are in storage, how many are in reserve for second doses. When will the next delivery arrive? Will there be any more this week, or can we only expect further deliveries next week?
No, deliveries are arriving continuously. The reason I don’t want to mention exact dates is that you can also hear the cacophony around us: if you log onto social media, or simply speak to a friend, you’ll see everyone saying all sorts of things. To be honest with you, I’ve never seen such chaos, in which you can hear everything and its opposite. All I can offer our compatriots is say that every day Cecília Müller tells the public what the situation is. She tells it like it is – as sure as I’m sitting here now. And I come here every Friday – and if you invite me back I’ll also come on Good Friday: once a week I tell you what’s going on, what can be expected, and what will happen. I ask everyone to disregard any contrary news stories, even if they listen to them; because what Cecília Müller says and what I can inform people about once a week is what will happen. Everyone is tired, impatient and frustrated, everyone has had enough, everyone wants their freedom. What’s more, the waves of the pandemic are strong, and they’re buffeting our ship. I stand at the helm, I have a compass, I see the whole situation and, believe me, my hands are on the wheel. Every week I render an account of what the situation is. In this cacophony, we need a few reliable reference points, and this is what we’re trying to give people. We live in a modern democracy, and so the cacophony and noise can’t be avoided: everyone’s free to say what they like and speak to whoever they want to speak to. What’s more, these gadgets amplify people’s voices. In a situation like this a responsible doctor like Cecília Müller or a politician like me can assist by continuing to provide authentic and reliable information about the situation at the right times, on an ongoing basis.
Now people are also able to check their registration details. There’s now a possibility for that. On the first day – yesterday – everyone crowded on, and there was some disruption. Will the operation of this facility be guaranteed?
Well, I’ve just mentioned that we’ll vaccinate school staff, but these 102,000 registered individuals don’t include those who work in vocational schools, because we haven’t compiled and checked the relevant data. Local governments hold the details for crèche workers. There, too, the data is being checked. What I’m saying is that we’re managing databases with hundreds of thousands – or millions – of data elements. We’re definitely making mistakes, too: in state administration, also, errors occur that shouldn’t; but on the whole, errors here or there are inevitable with such a vast quantity of data. I ask everyone to believe that the people working here also are of the utmost good faith. When there’s impatience and a tense situation, in general we ought to presume other people’s good intentions. If someone makes a mistake, it’s not because they want to harm anyone; it’s because they, too, are tired, are tense, and find it difficult. So we should try to be not only patient with one another, but assume that others are acting in good faith.
Can we now see the light at the end of the tunnel? We’d like to know whether we’ll emerge from this.
It’s easy for me, because I’m not only standing at the helm with a compass, but my people are up there in the crow’s nest, shouting down to me what they see ahead of us: land, rocks or open water. And I can tell you that we’ll definitely have a summer of freedom. In the period ahead one will need a vaccination certificate for certain services, and even in the summer the same will be true for entry to certain events. This is inevitable, as we must maintain this logic in our defence operation. Although this is perhaps only a secondary consideration, on the whole I can tell you that life in Hungary will become free earlier than in most other European countries – or even in any other country of the European Union, because Britain is ahead of us, and I don’t think we’ll be able to cross the finish line ahead of them. We have a good chance of this. We face difficult days ahead. Once again I’d like to underline that we should expect goodwill, patience and mutual assistance from one another, and that we should pay attention to and look out for one another. And then we won’t simply survive the difficult period of the next one or two weeks, but we’ll survive it with the smallest possible loss. Believe me, our doctors want to heal everyone. The reason that people are dying is not because doctors aren’t attending to them or aren’t doing a good job, but because the virus is deadly. For some people who are infected it’s deadly. But for our doctors and nurses nothing is as important as the lives of Hungarians. Believe me, they’re doing everything they can to return Hungarians to health.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.