Katalin Nagy: The epidemic data is growing ever more reassuring. This week the rate of vaccination has also been somewhat higher than last week. There will be a further easing of restrictions when we reach the point at which 5 million people have been vaccinated. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Which restrictions do you think will be lifted?
Good morning to your listeners. The Operational Group held another dawn meeting this morning. As the number of people who have been vaccinated currently stands at 4,898,866, every possible projection tells us that we’ll reach 5 million at the weekend. Five million vaccinated Hungarians will be a new watershed. This means that we’ve broken the third wave of the pandemic, and we’ve effectively defeated it. More than 50 per cent of people, of adults in Hungary, have been vaccinated; and I believe that this is the second – the first or second – best result in the whole of Europe. So in all modesty we can say that in terms of the pandemic Hungary today is more protected and safer than any Western European country. And as 5 million does indeed mark the beginning of a new chapter, today the Operational Group decided that we can lift most of the restrictions introduced in response to the pandemic. But I’d also point out that some restrictions will remain in place for those who haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t already had the infection. If you’ll allow me, I’ll list the nine items on which the Operational Group decided this morning. The first is that the night-time curfew will be lifted. The second is that the mandatory closing time for shops and hospitality venues will come to an end. We’re doing away with the obligation to wear masks in public spaces. Goodbye face masks! Finally we’ll see one another’s faces when we’re speaking. We’ve decided that sport – both individual and team – will be allowed in public spaces. Private and family events hosting up to fifty people will be allowed without restrictions, as will wedding receptions with no more than two hundred people in attendance. For private or family events – including wedding receptions – in hotels or restaurants, the venue’s operator will be required to ensure that attendees are separated from other customers; so such events will have to be held in separate rooms. Indoor events will continue to be accessible only to those with immunity certificates, but outdoor events – including rallies – will be allowed without restrictions, except for an upper limit of 500 participants. Once more it will be possible to hold protest demonstrations – and I’m sure people will turn up outside my front door. So that opportunity will be open to people. And perhaps it’s also important that music and dance events will only be open to people with immunity certificates. And, as we’ve succeeded in vaccinating those between the ages of 16 and 18 who have registered for the vaccine, 16-18-year-olds – who up until now have only been allowed to go indoors to cinemas or restaurants when accompanied by adults – will now be allowed to do so without adults, of provided they’ve been vaccinated.
Will this take effect the moment we reach the figure of 5 million? This could be Sunday night or Monday. Or will it only take effect from Tuesday, after the long weekend?
We’ll decide on that this afternoon, in light of today’s vaccination numbers, and we’ll issue a separate statement on it.
You said that more than 50 per cent of the adult population has been vaccinated. What’s the reason for the increase in vaccination uptake? Surveys also show this – not only among middle-aged and older people, but also among the young. Could a contributing factor also be that more than 50 per cent of young people between 16 and 18 have registered? Or could it be that now there’s a real choice of vaccines?
We can’t say precisely. People’s willingness to be vaccinated has been cyclical. Initially there was an upward trend, then the fact that young people between the ages of 16 and 18 were also allowed to apply for vaccination has given the process a final boost, but from now on it’s starting to slow down. But this has been the case everywhere. I’ve observed it personally: when I was in Israel I saw for myself how it was. The situation is the same in Britain, and it will be exactly the same here as well. I look at registrations, at how many people have registered for vaccination; earlier there was a great rush en masse, but now this has slowed down. I’d say that it’s slowed down to a trickle, with around five to ten thousand people registering every day. This level of demand is much lower than earlier. So from now on it will be very difficult to make further progress, and this is why it’s necessary to maintain a state of preparedness. This is because – despite our delight at 5 million people being vaccinated – there are three circumstances which give us reason for caution. Firstly, once we’ve reached 5 million, we need to remember that there are 8 million Hungarians over the age of 18; so 3 million people will still not be vaccinated – and among them the virus will certainly wreak havoc and cause infection. So I ask everyone – especially these 3 million people – to take this seriously and, if possible, to try and conquer the resistance within them. Because they clearly feel some kind of resistance – or they may have been listening to the anti-vaccination Left ; but now they should put that to one side, and come forward to be vaccinated. Because in a pandemic 3 million unvaccinated people undoubtedly present a risk. The second thing we should take into consideration is that in our neighbouring countries – with the exception of Serbia, which has done fantastically well – the rate of vaccination is much lower than in Hungary. And the third thing we must keep in mind is that mutations of all kinds are also a threat. We are the country with the widest range of vaccines, where people can choose from the largest number of different vaccines, and the only country where one can choose the vaccine one wants and then ask for a vaccination appointment. So we must continuously ensure that the vaccines also protect us against new mutations, against new variants of the virus. Therefore today we’ve placed the Operational Group on standby. We’re fighting, and I think we’ve won the battle; but there can always be rearguard attacks on us.
Vaccine procurement by the EU is ongoing, but Hungary doesn’t want to take part in it. Why is this?
We’ve been thinking ahead, and the situation in Hungary is as follows. Over and above the vaccines already administered, we have – either in storage or on order – 7.3 million doses of Pfizer, 1.2 million doses of Moderna and 4 million doses of Janssen, which is a single-dose vaccine. We’ve also ordered 4.7 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, although there’s some uncertainty about whether or not the factory will keep to the delivery schedule. So we have enough vaccines in storage and on order. This is in addition to the Chinese and Russian vaccines. Anyway, we have enough vaccines to be able to vaccinate Hungarians in 2021 – and in 2022, if necessary.
Even if third doses are required?
Yes, and even if a fourth dose is needed. If you add up these numbers – 7.3 million, 1.2 million, 4 million, 4.7 million and the Chinese and Russian vaccines on top of this – we’re fine. All these are in the bag. Anyway, we’re thinking ahead, and we’ve methodically ordered enough vaccine to ensure that there will be enough for everyone. What’s more, our plan has been to become self-sufficient. We don’t want to expose ourselves again to the situation that we’ve found ourselves in over the past eighteen months. We did the same with ventilators: we procured as many as possible at the beginning, and then we began production in Hungary. The situation will be the same with the vaccine. We’ve bagged as many as we need, and we’ve started building our own factory. So when we place orders, we won’t need to think about waiting an eternity. According to our calculations, the new Hungarian vaccine plant in Debrecen will start production in autumn 2022, or by the end of 2022 at the latest; and it will manufacture the Hungarian vaccine, which is to be developed by then. So if we still need vaccines against the coronavirus beyond 2022, we won’t have to buy them from abroad: we’ll have our own Hungarian-developed vaccine, manufactured in Hungary. Our scientists have solemnly pledged that research is at a stage which ensures that we’ll have this vaccine, this Hungarian-developed vaccine. Preparations for the factory’s construction have already begun, and soon we’ll be able to see it rising out of the ground. So we’ll be alright in 2022, in the second half of 2022. In the meantime we’ll have to defend ourselves with vaccines bought from abroad. And we’ve already ordered those. Therefore we’ve decided – and it was also my personal opinion – that as we’ve already ordered the amounts we need, we don’t need to spend the approximately 120 billion forints that ordering further vaccines would cost us. This is aside from the fact that we don’t like being restricted to a single type of product. If you’re only presented with one product, it usually benefits the seller rather than you; and here under communism we Hungarians learnt that such a situation isn’t a good one. I always tell our friends from the West an Aeroflot joke inherited from communist times. The airline stewardess asks a passenger if he wants breakfast. The passenger asks what his choices are, and the stewardess replies, “yes or no”. So we don’t like that; but that’s the kind of vaccine ordering option we’d be presented with. We’ve also been providing for our own safety. Putting aside jokes and old historical memories, the reality is that we’re safe, we’re organised, and we’re able to guarantee every Hungarian’s safety – not only for a year or two, but for decades ahead.
With the votes of the government majority, Parliament approved extension of the special legal order until the autumn. The Opposition didn’t support the bill, saying that nothing justifies extension of the special legal order until the autumn. Why has the Government nonetheless insisted on it?
Given these three threats – neighbouring countries not doing as well as we are, the increasing number of mutations, and the 3 million people who still haven’t been vaccinated – we must maintain a state of preparedness. But I truly hope that sometime during the summer we’ll also be able to rid ourselves of this special legal order. But to be able to act and react quickly it’s imperative that we still have this tool in our hands. Not only did the Left refuse to vote for it, but they even said ugly, disgusting things about us. People don’t like that sort of thing. But also the Opposition have up to now refused to take part in the defence operation and be part of a national unity. They’ve continually tried to discredit Hungarian hospitals and doctors, and meanwhile they’ve sought to slow down the vaccination drive. There is a logic to the Left, and even though I don’t like it I understand it : what’s bad for the country is good for the Left, because it makes it easier for them to gain power. I think that during a virus crisis, during a pandemic, such behaviour is irresponsible. But that’s a problem that their consciences need to deal with.
The Government has also extended the debt repayment moratorium until the end of the summer. The head of the Hungarian Banking Association had said that the banks consider around 10 per cent of loans to be in the high-risk category. Isn’t it possible that the moratorium should only have been extended for that 10 per cent? Why are you extending it until the end of the summer for everyone?
There’s more to it than that. First of all, what you’ve said is true: the Government has decided to extend the current debt repayment moratorium in its present form until the end of the summer. One needs to know that the debt repayment moratorium has two major types of beneficiary, two large groups of beneficiaries. One of these is households: more than one million households with at least two members. So we’re talking about several million people. The other group comprises businesses. There’s no doubt that over the past year banks have borne a burden – quite a significant burden – as a result of people having the freedom to decide not to pay debt repayment instalments if they felt their situation didn’t allow them to do so. This has meant that each such family has been able to save many tens of thousands of forints. And during the crisis this has been necessary. This has been especially important for lower-income and middle-class people. Wealthier people are fine without the debt repayment moratorium, thank you very much, so we don’t need to be concerned about them: they live their lives, and if they find themselves in trouble, they can pull through it, they can look after themselves. But middle class and lower-income people aren’t in that position, and so we’ve had to support them with the debt repayment moratorium. These are people who live off income from work and from pensions. So the ending or lifting of the debt repayment moratorium is a serious technical question. We’ve extended it by two months in order to give the banks and ourselves time to bring this debate – which promises to be a heated one – to a conclusion, and to decide on what will happen after the debt moratorium. We’ve extended it by two months now to enable us to discuss what will happen afterwards.
Yes. What will happen after 1 September? We’ve seen proposals from the banks and the Banking Association, and in my opinion they’re not acceptable. But I don’t want to pre-empt that debate; I just want to point out to you that there’s a lot of very serious professional work and debate taking place in the background. I don’t think that we’re in a situation in which low-income people can simply accept losing the possibility of the debt repayment moratorium and sign off it; because that could mean having to repay thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of forints every month. So we want to support them, we want to help them, and we must stand up for their interests. I also understand the arguments of the bankers, but at present I believe that we can’t give them priority. It’s also important to consider professional criteria, but in this instance we must essentially focus on the interests of people earning a living.
The GDP figure for the first quarter shows growth of almost 2 per cent, which even surprised the analysts. What do you think is the reason for this growth?
It didn’t surprise me, although Finance Minister Mihály Varga always brings me back down to earth. Let’s just call that the duty of a finance minister. He doesn’t need to be brought back down to earth because he always has both feet on the ground. And perhaps that’s how it should be: after all, he’s the one doing the sums and paying the bills. I’m in higher spirits, however. My task is to consider longer-term options and open up new horizons; and economic policy also requires courage and enterprise. My expectations for growth are higher than his, and they’re higher than those of most experts in Hungary. So I wasn’t surprised by the data for the first quarter, and I expect the figure for the second quarter to be phenomenal – one that we haven’t seen for a very long time. One of the reasons for this is that in the Hungarian economy today the same number of people are in work as were in work before the crisis. And economic growth is generated by work. On the other hand, the corresponding quarter last year was very poor. So as the starting point for comparison was low, it’s now helped us to achieve a good number – a phenomenally good number. And I also expect very strong growth for the third and fourth quarters. My calculations are always based on how many people are in work: if the same number of people are in work as were in work before the crisis, we have every reason to assume that our performance will be at least as good as it was back then. As I see it, not only do we have the same number of people in work, but in the coming months there will be an increase in the number of people earning a living. They’ll create value, and in my opinion the performance of the Hungarian economy – the whole of the national economy – could prove to be even higher than expected. I don’t want to speak too soon, and the Finance Minister says that we mustn’t count our chickens until they’ve hatched. That’s true, but let’s be optimistic. I also see the general atmosphere. I meet a lot of people with whom I can talk about the economy, and there’s some uncertainty in people’s heads: although they’d like to be hopeful, they haven’t yet decided whether such hope is realistic. They feel that either they’ll succeed or they won’t. They believe that there’s a good chance we might be unable to recover from this crisis rapidly; because it’s certainly not easy for someone who’s lost their job or who’s been forced into part-time work, or for someone who’s had to stay at home and work from there. It’s not easy for them to get back into the swing of things and return to work. But as far as I can see, on the whole these feelings, these perceptions, these hopes are continuously stabilising, and they stand on ever sounder foundations. In our profession this is referred to as a conjunctural view.
Could a new phase start in the economy as well after 5 million people have been vaccinated? Is this what we could call a relaunch?
Yes, here too we must draw a line marking the beginning of a new chapter. So far we’ve been forced onto the defensive. This was the economy protection action plan. Now we’ll need to relaunch the economy. The debt repayment moratorium is part of this, but I think that there will also be pay rises in the economy; trade unions and employers will soon have to start negotiations on the 2022 minimum wage, as they’ll have to come to an agreement on that. Soon we’ll also need to make decisions for 2022 on wages for workers in state-owned companies. We’ll wait until the end of the second quarter and the first half of the third quarter, and then we’ll be able to take the most important steps in relaunching the economy. Ours is a work-based economy: this country and the economy of this country is maintained and operated by people who make their living through work. Among these I always include those who are now retired, but who worked for a living in their active lives. We are the early risers, the working people who run the whole show, who run the country’s economy. Our economic policy must continue to focus on such people: working people, families, retired people.
The budget debate in Parliament will end today. I know that the Opposition doesn’t normally like anything in a budget proposal from the Government, but now they’re sometimes saying things like calling for the whole thing to be thrown in the bin. This is surprising, because in the past eleven years the country’s economic policy has worked quite well, and we’ve not seen any problems with the budgets.
The budget has a structure, an internal content. This is a technical issue. But there’s also a political debate about it, and this is the budget debate in Parliament. And as there will be a general election next year, in the current budget debate the Opposition are already stating their position in preparation for the election. Roles have been allocated. It’s not my job to interpret what they’re doing, but even a blind man can see what’s going on. There’s the protagonist: Ferenc Gyurcsány. He’s the one who always calls the shots. There’s a supporting character: the Mayor of Budapest. There’s the wife, who interprets the budget in a European dimension as well. And then there’s a clown. He has no idea about professional matters, but performs impressive somersaults and cartwheels, and then says that the budget should be scrapped. So this is how things are set up. And this continues night and day. I don’t think clowns should be taken seriously, and we should never react to provocation. Instead we should remain sanguine, accepting that ultimately the Opposition wants to come to power, and so everything obstructing that and associated in any way with the Government must be classified as bad. That’s life.
It’s National Defence Day today, and it occurred to me that these commemoration days can be imbued with content by adding something to them in the present. We should remember – and spread the word – that when you came to office eleven years ago, Hungary, a country of 10 million, had a total of eighteen army reservists.
Well, this clearly illustrates that the current national government’s worldview and perception of Hungarian life differs from that of left-wing governments before 2010. Because thinking about National Defence Day, the question is whether in the modern world we need defence forces at all. And the Left took the view that we don’t. By contrast, we believe that you always need an army. In fact, what’s best is not just to have an army, but defence forces. A defender of the homeland is always more than just a soldier, just a member of the army: they will always defend the homeland. NATO membership may well make our situation easier, but NATO will not defend us. I think that anyone who expects others to risk their lives for our security is chasing illusions. Naturally if we’re in distress they’ll be prepared to help us – if they see that we ourselves have also done something in the interest of our own security. But not maintaining an army or a defence force because you expect someone else to defend you is a foolish attitude – and in my view a dishonest one – which no other country will accept. Why should an American or French soldier risk their life just because we don’t have a Hungarian army of our own whose duty – indeed paramount duty – is to defend our country? Therefore NATO membership doesn’t exempt us from the obligation of maintaining an army of our own that’s able to guarantee our defence. So we need soldiers, we need an army, we need defenders of the homeland. We must honour our soldiers. They take their job very seriously, they swear an oath to defend the country, even if that means sacrificing their lives. Other than them, no one else in this country swears such an oath. So it stands to reason that in most cases we must always place them first; because although, God willing, there may not be a war for generations, if there is one our soldiers will be the first to risk their lives – in fact they’ll have to. So we must truly honour our soldiers. And it’s very important that the best-trained people serve in the military, because in the army we not only need fighting infantry and artillery divisions, but also good engineers, doctors, chemists, scientists who understand biological weapons, and so on. So in the period ahead I’d like to develop a strong link between the issue of defence and the outstanding specialists serving in the army. So today, on National Defence Day, I myself also salute the soldiers defending our country.
Equipment is also necessary and very important. Youve just extended a strategic agreement. I’m sorry, but we only have another half minute.
The most important thing is soldiers. Those who have served in the army themselves will know that a soldier who isn’t adequately trained and capable of self-defence won’t be able to defend others. So the most important thing is the human factor. But you also need equipment. Because you won’t get far with spears, bows and arrows and throwing stones if your enemy has modern military technology. So the Hungarian army must keep pace with everyone not only in terms of military skills and knowledge, determination and discipline, but also in terms of military technology. And in recent years our neighbours have embarked on quite serious development of their armaments. For the sake of our security we can’t ignore this, and we must respond. Therefore we must also modernise our army to a very high level. We’re the most populous country in the Carpathian Basin, and we must also have the strongest army.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.