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

Katalin Nagy: The number of people who have been vaccinated has reached 3.5 million. Many people have worked hard for this result. So at the weekend the plan is for restaurant and cafe terraces to reopen. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Doesn’t the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe regard this reopening, as premature?

Good morning everyone. I didn’t ask him, to be honest with you; because while I had an interesting meeting with him, he emphasised what he saw as positive developments. Hungary is making exemplary progress. I was more interested in whether we can expect pandemics like the coronavirus in the years ahead, in what information they have about this, whether they have some kind of early warning system, and if the threat of another global pandemic emerges, whether we – humanity – will be smarter and better able to prepare than we were this time. We’re proceeding according to our own schedule, rather than making our reopening measures conditional on the opinion of the World Health Organization. At the Operational Group meeting early this morning, I was told that we’ve vaccinated 3,508,846 people. This means that from tomorrow morning terraces will be allowed to reopen. On my local terrace there’s a pint of beer waiting for me. And I can hardly wait for us to finally get there, because, to be honest, this past year really has been difficult to endure. We’re all tired, and the winter of our discontent has been dragging on for a year. Well, we also had to change a few rules in order to enable terraces to close at half past nine in the evening. The plan is that they can stay open until half past nine. People won’t be able to make it home by ten, because I think they’ll be in somewhat better spirits than normal, and perhaps they’ll even like each other more than usual. So it will take longer to get home. This means that from tomorrow, from Saturday, the night-time curfew will start at 11.00 p.m., rather than 10.00. So people will only need to get home by 11. This is the situation now. But now that we’ve passed the threshold of 3.5 million, I’m already thinking about reaching 4 million by the middle of next week. This is what disease control experts informed me about at today’s Operational Group meeting.

Have you already determined the next steps in reopening? 

Yes, we have. As I’ve promised, here on the radio I can always say what Hungarians can expect a few days before the next steps in reopening. When we reach 4 million, I think by next Wednesday or Thursday, we’ll make a wide range of services available to those with immunity certificates. So we’re arriving at the moment when we finally see the relevance and meaning of immunity certificates for people who’ve been vaccinated or who’ve recovered from infection. To avoid making a mistake or leaving anyone out, I’ve written down the services available to those with immunity certificates from the middle of next week – from around next Wednesday or Thursday. With an immunity certificate it will be possible to visit theatres, dance and music events, the circus, cinemas, sports and fitness centres, swimming pools, spas and bathing complexes, ice rinks, zoos, wildlife parks, adventure parks, amusement parks, indoor play centres, museums, libraries and sports events.

Good news!

Yes, it sounds like life as normal.

That’s right. Incidentally, the experiences…

Excuse me, in addition to this hotels will also be allowed to reopen. So people with immunity certificates will be allowed to go to hotels, and into restaurants and cafes as well as their terraces.

Nursery schools and the lower grades of elementary schools reopened this week. What are the experiences?

We listened to what State Secretary Maruzsa had to say this morning. It’s difficult for parents who have been certain of their children’s complete safety at home to return to a situation in which they have to let them go back to nursery or elementary school. Nevertheless Mr. Maruzsa reported that this has been going more smoothly than anticipated. This percentage has been well over 50 per cent in both nursery and elementary schools, as far as I can see this number is rising steadily, and I think that next week it will be even higher. There’s always a debate about the efficacy of vaccines and these questions. Also this morning, I heard a report on this which made it clear that there’s a probability of around 1 per cent that a person who’s been vaccinated will fall ill. So those people who have already received their first dose can be regarded as effectively immune. Therefore our children, too, are safe.

According to the Government, the state of danger must be extended. It seems that yet again the Opposition won’t support this. We know that they were also opposed to it during the first wave. During the second wave they accepted it, and now they’re opposed to it again. I’m not sure if this is so that they can follow some kind of pattern, or why else it could be. 

First of all, I’d like to remind everyone that although these numbers are promising and we’re now enjoying the breeze of freedom, vaccination continues to be important. Of course it’s good that we’ll have vaccinated 4 million people, but 4 million out of 8 million is still only 50 per cent. Okay, PCR tests have confirmed that approximately half a million people have recovered from the disease, and this gives us 4.5 million. So by the middle of next week, more than half the adult population will qualify as immune. However, a very large number of people still haven’t been vaccinated. In Hungary vaccination is voluntary, hence the need for registration. I encourage everyone to register and be vaccinated. We’ve now made this easier: we’ve launched a new internet platform enabling people to request appointments; now it’s no longer emergency health care, but a service. You log on the internet, request an appointment, and when you turn up for it you’ll be vaccinated. So it’s important to keep supporting vaccination, and it’s important to somehow drown out anti-vaccination voices. Because the voices of those opposing vaccination are loud. Effectively the entire Opposition, the entire Left, belong to that camp. We’re now witnessing another anti-vaccination trick. Earlier they were openly anti-vaccination. Now they’re saying they have doubts about whether or not the vaccines being administered are effective. This is why I mentioned earlier that, according to our analyses, the probability of falling ill after receiving the first vaccine is around 1 per cent. And every vaccine is equally effective. We must therefore also reject anti-vaccination arguments that question the efficacy of vaccines. Vaccines will be arriving in large quantities over the next two to three weeks. Within just a few weeks the number of people vaccinated can be double what it is now. I’d rather not state a specific date, but this means that sometime in mid-May there could be – and, I think, there will be – a situation in which the number of people vaccinated will catch up with the number of people who have registered. So we’ll have vaccinated everyone who’s registered. This is when Hungarians around the world will have their turn, because we’ll have enough vaccines. Therefore once we’ve vaccinated the Hungarians living in Hungary, we’ll start a campaign in which any Hungarian from any part of the world can come here to be vaccinated. We’ll extend the range of those eligible for vaccination in one other respect. I’ve just heard the Health Minister’s report about the possible vaccination of people between the ages of 16 and 18. There’s a great international debate, a medical debate, about whether or not they should be vaccinated – and if so, with which vaccine. At present the Hungarian disease control authority and the Health Minister think that those aged between 16 and 18 can be vaccinated. We’ll only venture to vaccinate them with the Pfizer vaccine. So today I instructed the authorities to set aside enough Pfizer vaccines for the inoculation of people between the ages of 16 and 18, and they’ll also be able to receive vaccinations. In a few days’ time we’ll publish information about the protocol for their vaccination. Then there’s another debate about whether children over the age of 12 can be vaccinated: children between 12 and 16. In Israel this isn’t just a debate, but they’re actually being vaccinated. We’re not yet ready to venture down that path. We need to carry out some more research to decide on this matter, but we’ve already decided on people aged between 16 and 18. When parents go to hotels, sports events, theatres, cinemas or concerts, they’ll naturally be allowed to take their children with them, because there will only be immune people in places requiring immunity certificates for entry. And so our children will not be at risk there.

Doesn’t the extension of the state of danger mean that the Government is continuing to concentrate its power? This is what the Opposition is claiming.

One could put it that way, but what one should see here is not power, but the capacity to take action. So it’s important that the country remains operational, and has the capacity to act. The threat of the pandemic has not yet passed. We’re in a dangerous situation, and the country must not risk losing its capacity to act. Parliament will adjourn for the summer, and what will happen then? So I think it’s important that during the summer period the Government retains its ability to take action. It’s important for the Government to have a wide, strong mandate, and to be able to take every necessary decision – even when Members of Parliament are not sitting because of the summer recess. So I think we’ve made the right decision to submit this motion, and to request extension of the Government’s power to adopt the necessary measures. It’s plain to see, however, that step by step we’re relaunching the country. There will be ever fewer restrictions in our daily lives, but the Government will nevertheless need to retain its ability for action. These two things are not mutually exclusive. The country will not remain in lockdown, but we’re relaunching the country step by step, and in the meantime the Government will have the legal powers needed for action.

Numbers are improving, and the numbers of people being vaccinated are increasing on schedule. Now the Opposition have opted for the tactic of saying three times a day that in Hungary more people are dying of the pandemic than anywhere else in the whole world – as they also kept saying during the first wave. Tímea Szabó, for example, has been saying this. But now Ferenc Gyurcsány’s people are also saying this. Meanwhile we have data from Eurostat confirming that Hungary’s excess mortality is absolutely average, at 6.6 per cent. 

One somehow has an unpleasant feeling when political battles are waged over the number of people who have died. It’s somehow painful. People are dying, we must show compassion for their relatives and bury our dead. So perhaps I could say that people should be shown more respect. The number of deaths must not be the subject for some political contest. It’s bad enough when a single person dies. It’s perhaps possible to demonstrate statistically whether we’re at the front, the back or the middle; but I’m pained by the death of even a single Hungarian, a Hungarian who could have lived had it not been for this disease. They, too, had fathers and mothers – or were themselves fathers, mothers or children. Such things run much deeper than politics. But somehow we must talk about this; and the world of politics is such that if we talk about it, we immediately start arguing about it. We could, however, do so with some more decency or dignity. For my part, I don’t like wrangling over mortality statistics. All I can tell you is what I’m looking at. This is what I’ve always done, and will do in the future. The European Union has an internet data platform covering all the Member States, on which they publish the number of deaths in the year of COVID compared with the last year in “peacetime”. This is reported on a monthly and quarterly basis, and perhaps also weekly. This means that this is a real number showing how many lives we’ve lost compared with the last year of peace. This isn’t something one can do well in, but when we look at this we see that Hungary is in a tenable position. We’re among the better-performing countries, the countries where fewer people died. Hungarian data provision follows a different logic: In Hungary we make no distinction between those who died of COVID and those who died with COVID. So we don’t differentiate between those who died because they contracted the infection and those who died because they had an underlying illness that would have resulted in death anyway, but had in the meantime also contracted COVID. Let me give you a perfectly simple example. If someone develops acute gastrointestinal bleeding and dies, but it turns out that they were infected with the coronavirus, that person will be recorded as a COVID death, even though the two things have nothing to do with each other. That’s how Hungarian health statistics work. We knew this right from the beginning. I even asked our experts in this field why this is the practice. The very clear answer to this question was that it’s always been like this: we keep records in a very conservative manner, and the experts didn’t want to change the system. So it’s continuing like this. Let me repeat: in our records no distinction is made between those who die of COVID and those who die with COVID. In European statistics there is such a distinction, and so I follow those instead.

Looking at the vaccine situation, it’s good news that so many vaccines will be arriving in Hungary this week and also next week. But one is puzzled by news reports that the Sputnik V vaccine will be examined by the World Health Organization together with the European Medicines Agency. One has to ask what the European Medicines Agency has been doing up to now. After Angela Merkel told them – I guess two months ago – to get down to this job, why has it taken the World Health Organization, the WHO, to get the European agency to start examining this vaccine?

These are complex issues. There are too many interests in the background, and these aspects have become entangled. On the one hand, there are the interests of pharmaceutical companies. When there’s a global campaign against one vaccine or another, when they question its efficacy, I don’t know whether there are actual scientific findings behind that, or just the communication strategies of pharmaceutical companies. The first consideration is this: money, money, money. These are global multinational companies. The second aspect is that in Europe the issue of vaccines has been mixed with politics and geopolitics: “Western vaccines are good, Eastern vaccines are bad”. It’s just like Orwell: “Four legs good, two legs bad.” So politics has overridden humanity. I think that this is a problem. In this respect Hungary is the odd man out. Right at the very beginning we stated very clearly that we have a single priority: people and people’s lives. For us there is no Western vaccine or Eastern vaccine: there are vaccines which are good and effective, with which we can save human lives, and there are those that aren’t; and then there’s the situation in which there’s no vaccine at all. This is the lens through which we looked at the situation. As I’ve told you before, to me it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white; what matters is that it catches mice. One mustn’t mix things up. When it comes to lives, to saving human lives and people’s health, when it comes to a pandemic, this issue must not be politicised. We shouldn’t do so here at home as the Left is doing; and neither should we do so on a global scale – as quite a few Western countries have done. There, too, the issue is splitting open, because we see that ever more people in Germany are calling for political considerations to be put aside and for the authorities to buy the Russian vaccine. Then they’ll say the same about the Chinese vaccine. We know how this works. But the question is what it is that we Hungarians have learned from all this. I think that we Hungarians have learned that the reason we’re doing very well with vaccinations now is that Hungary is a country that no one can order what to do and what not to do. When action needs to be taken, we’ll decide on the basis of a single consideration: our national interests. And if we do this we’ll have a better chance of making good decisions than if we allow others to tell us what to do.

The amendment of the 2021 budget will be presented to Parliament shortly, to be followed by the 2022 budget. Is there any way of knowing for certain that the latter won’t also need to be amended? What are your plans? Clearly no one knows what the future holds, but what has [Finance Minister] Mihály Varga said about the plans? 

I can’t complain that the Hungarian legal system isn’t generous and wise. It leaves both the Government and Parliament scope to amend the budget. I think that this is especially useful at times like this, in emergencies and crises. Of course there’s the need for transparency and budgetary discipline, but you also need flexibility. The Hungarian system combines these criteria well. I can’t promise you that in the coming months we won’t need to alter one budget item or another with a decree – that will be decided by life, and we’ll adapt to the changing situation. But at any rate we have that option. The proposal for amendment of the 2021 budget, this year’s budget, aims to relaunch the economy. And the budget for 2022 – which we’ll submit to Parliament shortly – will also be about relaunching the economy. Naturally at present I myself am primarily concentrating on health, on mortality statistics, the state of hospitals and the number of vaccinations. Around 80 per cent of my thoughts are focused on those issues; but slowly this percentage is changing, and the issue of relaunching the economy will come to the fore in everyone’s thoughts. The reason we amended the 2021 budget is for it to better serve the relaunch of the economy. We’ve launched enormous housing refurbishment projects, and we’ve given substantial help to businesses that have found themselves in distress. Hundreds of billions of forints are available for them in the form of recovery loans. There are even interest-free loans for small businesses. So a great many things have started. We’ll also pay furlough grants to restaurateurs for May – despite the fact that, as I’ve said, they can start operations sometime at the end of this month inside their restaurants, as well as on their terraces, and also in hotels. Notwithstanding this, we’ll also pay these grants for May. This means that the logic of relaunching the economy is gaining ground in our lives.

Today you’re having talks in Brussels on the recovery plan. Have you had talks with the Opposition? [Mayor of Budapest] Gergely Karácsony wrote to the Commission in advance, claiming that the Government isn’t consulting with all stakeholders on this issue.

In Hungary the order of consultations is clearly laid down in legislation. The Government has always subjected itself to these, and will follow them in the future. The Prime Minister’s Office has coordinated these consultations. I think that the procedure for these has been conducted correctly. As regards today’s talks in Brussels, I don’t really want to negotiate about anything there, because the financial issues can be regarded as effectively settled. There are three or four issues which remain unresolved, but these will be taken care of by experts. I’m much more interested in issues related to the future of the European Union. Let’s not forget that we’re on the threshold of major changes, as the EU is launching an unprecedented common economic crisis management programme. I’d like to know whether this is a one-off, or if it will be repeated. I’d like to see how the EU is preparing for a possible future pandemic similar to the present one, and what conclusions they’ve drawn from their actions over the past few months. I’d like to see how relations with the new US administration are developing. I’d like to see whether Hungary and the European Union will be wedged between China and the United States, or – as President Macron has said – we’ll have strategic sovereignty or autonomy, and have our own line rather than simply following the Americans. These are all big issues, and I’d rather talk about these. I don’t want to talk at length here about our line of business, but leadership also has its own set of rules. Everyone can easily understand this, because many people have driving licences. When you’re first allowed to test your skills out on the public roads after the practice track, the first thing the instructor tells you – at least when I took driving lessons – is that you should never look down at the road right in front of your wheels; because if you do, you’ll jerk the steering wheel, the car will swerve left and right and eventually you’ll come to grief. Instead you should look ahead and steer the car accordingly. It’s the same in politics. I’m going to Brussels today so that I can see the road ahead and steer the wheel accordingly here at home.

Tomorrow is St. George’s Day, the Day of the Police. They, too, have worked very hard to make sure that during the pandemic everything is in order, and to somehow maintain the functioning of things that were disrupted. What’s your view about the work of the police?

Well, I come from the anti-communist world of street fighters, from the second half of the eighties. That was a time when we’d shout “We bought you your Yamahas” at the police, and saw them as siding with the dictatorship and being the embodiment of oppression. That wasn’t so long ago: thirty years ago. By comparison, if today I look at myself – or within myself – or simply look around the country, I see that people don’t look on the police as an oppressive institution, but as what its name tells us. We have an expressive language, and in Hungarian the word for a police officer literally means “guardian of order”. And we’re well aware that without clear order there’s no freedom either. A person who protects order, a member of the police, also protects our freedom. Thirty years ago we thought the exact opposite. This is the situation now, however; and in a democracy this is how it should be. Therefore I believe that in the minds of Hungarians the police are among the more respected professions. This is also confirmed by my personal experience. Now, especially in this time of crisis, I’ve needed to spend a lot of time with them. We’ve spoken a great deal about doctors and nurses, but less about police officers – despite the fact that they also protect our borders. They’ve simultaneously had to protect the borders against migrants, and implement the more stringent border policing measures that were introduced due to the crisis, the pandemic. We’re coming to the end of this year-long semi-war situation without a breakdown in law and order, without a perceivable rise in crime, and without anyone feeling that Hungary was heading towards chaos simply because a state of danger or a pandemic had emerged. It’s thanks to our police officers that this didn’t happen, that we didn’t head towards chaos, and that we didn’t even see such signs. So if we want to be fair and just, we must always also include or mention police officers along with doctors and nurses, and we should thank them for their work with great respect.

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