Katalin Nagy: In Hungary There’s been a sharp increase in the number of infections due to the Omicron variant. but initially the prediction of experts – that the symptoms will mostly be mild – is proving to be correct. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is here in the studio. Why do you think that the opposition continually attacks the Government’s handling of the pandemic? After all, the illness and the pandemic are not party-political issues. Good morning.
Good morning to your listeners, good morning. Let’s give Omicron priority over left wing attacks, and so let’s talk about that first. Omicron is a new challenge. We’ve seen many versions of the virus. What’s happened so far has been that when a new variant appears it represents a greater danger than those which emerged earlier. I’m not now relying on my own knowledge of virology, but communicating the opinion of the experts when I say that the Omicron variant differs from the previous ones in the sense that it spreads at lightning speed – faster than any earlier variant. But the danger that threatens us, the force with which we are under attack, is weaker than that which the earlier variants possessed. So on the one hand the bad news is that it spreads more rapidly; but on the other hand the good news is that it’s not as strong as the earlier variants. I receive reports early every morning, and I’ve seen the report for today. It’s clear from this that the number of infections is rising, but the number of people on ventilators, for example, has fallen again today. Meanwhile the number of people in hospital, those requiring treatment, is rising far more slowly than the speed at which the Omicron variant is spreading. But this is a new challenge with which we’ll have to live. For this reason we’ve had to change some rules. I’ll repeat these again and again, for which I apologise; but on 15 February a new rule will come into effect, and I’d like to help people to prepare themselves for it. The rule is that from 15 February only those Hungarians over the age of 18 who have received a third dose of the vaccine will be considered to be fully vaccinated. Earlier, immunity certificates could be received by those who had recovered from infection. That rule will now come to an end. The immunity certificate will in effect be transformed into a vaccination certificate: it will be issued to those who have been vaccinated – those who have either received all three doses, or who have received their second dose less than six months ago. So those who have not been vaccinated will not qualify as being protected. Since the progress of the illness caused by Omicron is swifter and less severe than for earlier variants of the virus, we have changed the quarantine rules: the compulsory quarantine period is being reduced from the previous ten days to seven days; but if someone tests negative after five days then they’ll be able to come out of quarantine immediately, before the seventh day. The five-day rule will also come into effect for school students. So much for Omicron. Perhaps there’s another important thing, if you’ll allow me. I’m relying now on my papers here. Another important piece of information is that vaccinations will be available without the need for prior registration at hospital vaccination points and district central specialist clinics every Thursday and Friday in January – so including today – between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and every Saturday in January between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. That’s the public statement. I’d also like to tell you and your listeners that army vaccination buses are continuously travelling around the country, and have already vaccinated 32,000 people in 16 counties and 136 settlements. Now, why is the defence operation under attack? Well, first of all this isn’t a peculiarly Hungarian phenomenon, as there is great debate about defence operations everywhere. So we can at least give the Left here credit for the fact that they’re not behaving in an exceptional way. Disputes over COVID defence operations are common across the whole of Europe, and I think that in a democracy this is natural. What sets the Hungarian Left apart from the rest of Europe is that here they’re producing fake videos. I’m not aware of cases in any Western European country in which specific fictitious claims have been presented as fact, with the production of fake videos. I’m not aware of debates over defence operations which at the same time weaken the effectiveness of the defence. Because, as you’ve said, this virus doesn’t have a membership card either for Fidesz or for [the opposition party] DK. And it has no identification system enabling it to attack one particular person or another: it attacks everyone. So I think that’s it’s permissible – and indeed necessary – to have debates over what is a good defence operation; but we must have such debates without at the same time weakening the defence operation. And I think that the way in which they’re attacking the defence operation is insulting to doctors and nurses. These attacks disparage the work being carried out in hospitals, insinuating that the people working in hospitals aren’t able to provide suitable care for people who have been infected. The truth, however, is that these people – whom we thank for their work – frequently make superhuman efforts: stretching themselves to the limit; utilising every possible resource; accepting redeployment, overtime and extension of their work hours. So they’re doing everything possible – and the healthcare system and every person in it is doing everything possible – to offer help to their fellow human beings, to their patients. They deserve recognition. So when it’s said that the healthcare system is weak, this accusation is also being levelled against doctors and nurses. Our doctors are not at all weak, and our nurses are not weak. The work which we’re doing in organising vaccinations is not weak. The organisation of vaccinations is progressing well everywhere. I strive to collect information related to this, and the overwhelming majority of opinions show that it’s progressing well and that it’s well organised. They treat people who’ve arrived in their care with decency, empathy, and the desire to help. So the entire system, which has now organised the vaccination of more than 6 million people, is operating at a level which should give no Hungarian any cause for shame. Instead I’d say that we should be proud of this defence operation against the virus. And let’s also be proud of having such experts in public administration, such nurses and such doctors. And let’s not forget our police officers and soldiers, whose involvement in the fight against the virus has been characterised by not only competence, but also humanity. This is a good country, and I always have the feeling that the Left cannot make a distinction between attacking the Government and belittling the country. In politics we must debate with one another not by belittling the country, but instead by celebrating it, as this is our shared homeland.
Another recurring theme is that they denounce the Eastern vaccines – in fact they’re agitating against them. This seems to be a baseless campaign, however, as we see that the Chinese vaccine has been used to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people in Asian and Arab countries. But there’s also the specific example, which perhaps you remember, of an elderly DK politician who didn’t accept the Eastern vaccine, although his wife did; his wife is still alive, but the elderly politician died of coronavirus.
Well, we can easily draw a line under the debate surrounding the Chinese vaccine, because the World Health Organization [WHO] has accredited, approved and supported it. So here at home we politicians – who have become amateur epidemiologists – can debate and say what we like about one type of vaccination or another, one type of vaccine or another; but the truth is that expert international organisations are dealing with the question of which vaccine can be used and which cannot. And it’s good that this is the case, because these are difficult questions of specialist scientific policy. I’ve been in this business for quite a long time, but I wouldn’t dare to evaluate vaccines. I’ve been Prime Minister for a combined total of sixteen years and I’ve been in opposition for sixteen years, so that’s more than thirty years. But this isn’t long enough for someone to be able to say what’s good and what’s bad in this situation, which is a profound specialist question. There’s debate about defence operations in every country, and there are pharmaceutical factories in every country, and every country wants to sell vaccines; therefore commercial interests emerge, and sometimes these appear in the guise of specialist debate. So it’s good if, alongside and above the specialist – and partly commercial – debates within a country, there’s also an international forum and international scientific community which forms responsible opinions and issues evaluations. The WHO has evaluated the Chinese vaccine and has found it to be good; and, as you’ve said, it’s been used to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people.
This pandemic has hobbled the world in almost every way, and has thrown a spanner into the wheels of the economy. It’s very difficult to relaunch. Is this why the Hungarian government chose the slogan “Hungary is going forward?” What does this slogan mean?
Well, politics is a world which is close to poetry – although this is not always obvious in the midst of its everyday rough and tumble. But there’s beauty in our profession, as it’s always a fine thing to serve other people – even if that service takes place in the midst of debates. One of the beauties of the work that we do is that, after all, it has some kind of kinship with literature. And in literature it’s a good thing if when we say something it elicits many different types of thoughts in people’s heads. Therefore “Hungary is going forward not back” is the type of sentence for which if one asks ten or twenty people to describe its meaning in terms of the associations it generates, every one of them will give a slightly different description from the others. I’m one of those who like this sentence, because it encapsulates the battle that Hungary has pursued over the past twelve years, because in 2010 Hungary was a country that had been driven to bankruptcy. This country had been ruined, bled dry and ruined: unemployment stood at more than 12 per cent; those on the left who are now decrying the healthcare system took away one month’s salary from healthcare workers, they took away one month’s salary from teachers, and they took away one month’s pension from pensioners. The economy wasn’t growing but shrinking. Taxes were sky-high. Oh yes, and as if we weren’t in enough difficulty, the IMF had its knee on our neck. So Hungary was a country which had found itself and had been driven into a very difficult situation, into ruin. And I haven’t even mentioned foreign currency debtors. And over the course of twelve years Hungary worked tremendously hard to correct the errors and sins of the former left-wing governments. We’re now restoring the thirteenth month’s pension. We’ve been able to continuously increase the minimum wage, and we’ve been able to increase salaries for a number of different professions. So I feel that now we can talk about labour shortages rather than unemployment. Tax rates, which were sky high, can now be said to be extremely good by European comparison. Our country’s rate of growth is now not minus 2 or 3 per cent, but plus 7 per cent. So I think that the country has gone forward. And now we hear those left-wing politicians who earlier – up until 2010 – brought the country to bankruptcy, and who are now saying that they’re here and standing ready to take over the leadership of the country after the election. To my mind this means that we’d be going back. Twelve years of work shouldn’t be thrown out of the window – because obviously if those who drove the country to bankruptcy came back to power, they’d do what they did earlier. Well that’s what they know how to do. They know how to impose austerity, cuts and pension reductions; but they won’t increase the minimum wage and they won’t increase pensions because they didn’t do that when they had the opportunity to do so. And another reason I think this sentence is important is that people don’t tend to follow parliamentary battles very closely, and so they clearly don’t hear much about the fact that the people who committed the errors and sins in the period leading up to 2010 have since then also failed to give their support in Parliament to the government decisions designed to correct those errors. We don’t talk much about this, but they didn’t vote for a single tax reduction, and they didn’t vote for the reinstatement of the thirteenth month’s pension. So I can recite a list of the measures that with which we have helped people and which they have continuously rejected. So it’s not simply about how they governed, but also about the way of thinking that they represented and have continued to represent in the years since. So there’s the price freeze on basic food items, for example. No one’s happy that prices everywhere in Europe – and especially energy prices – are rising. So from America to France, the Western world is experiencing a period of high inflation. Within the Western world we can include Hungary and Central Europe. This is an extraordinary situation, in which inflation has risen to extraordinary levels. Now, unlike liberal economists, the Hungarian government isn’t simply shrugging its shoulders and saying, “There’s nothing we can do and this is simply how the economy is: sometimes it’s up and sometimes it’s down, and at the moment it’s like this. The economy needs to be left to eventually correct itself.” We say that in an extraordinary situation extraordinary measures must be used in order to protect people. We’ve introduced a price cap on fuel, an interest rate freeze on loans, and now a price freeze on certain food items. The Left are attacking every one of these. They aren’t supporting any of these, even though it’s obvious that it’s in the public’s interest for these price freezes on food, interest rates and fuel to be enacted. All I’d like to say is that this sentence about us going forward not back is urging us to learn from our own recent history. Let’s learn from what happened before 2010. Let’s learn from the enormous amount of sweat and effort that was demanded from everyone in this country in order for us to be able to correct those errors. And, having succeeded in this, why would we turn back to find ourselves greeted only by problems? This is what this sentence says to me. It could probably say even more to other people. But I think that since it’s a good description of the situation in which we Hungarians find ourselves as a country, it’s a sentence which is useful in offering assistance to people in terms of finding their bearings and orienting themselves. So those who like it will like it, and those who don’t won’t use it. It’s a free world. It’s a good framework for comprehending everything that’s happened to us over the past twelve years.
When he won the primary elections, the Opposition’s prime-ministerial candidate said that he’d replaced the old opposition – or that collectively it had been replaced – and that he wouldn’t return to the pre-2010 world. Of course it’s another question that since then, when it sees that its popularity has declined, it’s searching for traitors within its ranks – or within their ranks. But why do they always insist on and return to the subject of the privatisation of health care? They’re returning to saying that the introduction of price regulations is wrong. Now they’re saying this in relation to the price freeze on food items, while around eighteen months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány himself wanted the Government to make such an intervention. So it’s as if they’ve forgotten what they were talking about yesterday.
Well, there could be two reasons for this kind of thing, although I’m not sure that’s it’s the Hungarian prime minister’s duty to speculate. Indeed people don’t expect me to speculate on that, but to provide guidance on certain issues and make decisions which will help their lives. But I think that when we talk about privatisation of Hungarian health care, one of the palpable interests behind this is always a business interest. And on the left very many people have been working and are working, receiving payment and support from large international companies – or, let’s say, business groups – which have an interest in private health care. And I think that, as a consequence of their previous bosses and paymasters, they have an interest in offering commercial opportunities to big business and international capital, and in helping them to privatise Hungarian health care. A continuous feature of the programme of the Left is its attempt to convince us that a healthcare system organised by the state doesn’t offer security and the best solution. According to them it would be good to allow private capital into the operation of hospitals, specialist clinics, and perhaps even insurers – although there’s perhaps more debate over that. Now of course no one is arguing against private capital: if someone thinks that it’s worth their while opening a private business in the healthcare sector, they can do so. But we shall not give them money from contributions that have been paid into the state health insurance system. The contributions that you pay are used by the current government – the national government now – to operate a public healthcare system. I think that recently doctors’ salaries have been moving in a good direction, and to a great extent are helping to equip doctors to do high-quality work. Over the course of four years nurses’ pay has increased by over 71 per cent. We’ve been able to come to an agreement with the Medical Chamber to ensure that the healthcare system in Hungary isn’t a private system, but a public system. This isn’t just a government decision, but a position with which the Medical Chamber agrees. Indeed the unions – the healthcare workers’ unions – also agree. So the solution is not for us to privatise, but for all of us who have a role in health care to organise better, operate better, work better and create better conditions. I recall that in the pre-2010 world there were cuts of more than 600 billion forints in the Hungarian healthcare system. And not only have we restored it all, but we’ve put back in much more than that. It’s another matter that nothing will ever be enough. I’ve yet to see a healthcare system that couldn’t be improved. And beyond doubt the Hungarian system could and must also undergo a great deal of improvement. We still have to carry out many hospital refurbishment projects. And we’ll also have to do some more work on wages, as pay rises for doctors haven’t come to an end, but are part of a process lasting several years. This entered its second phase in January, and a third phase will follow. So none of that is finished. Another reason we must continuously improve the healthcare system is that healthcare knowledge around the world is continuously growing, scientific knowledge is advancing, new equipment and medicines are emerging, and so on. But this doesn’t mean that the state should withdraw from health care. There may be countries which have never had a strong public healthcare system, and so in them the future will lie in private health care; but that’s not an approach we’re interested in, because those aren’t our lives and they’re not our country. We live here, we’re Hungarians, and the question is one of what’s good for Hungary. It’s my personal conviction – and this is what I’ve always worked for – that in Hungary the solution is a public healthcare system owned and overseen by the state which provides the best possible services for everyone. For those who have lots of money, any system will do. Many of us in Hungary don’t have a lot of money: we can safely say that wages in Hungary haven’t yet reached a level at which Hungary could be described as a rich country. We don’t by any means yet belong to the group of rich countries – we will do, we’re on the right track for that, but we’re not there yet. In a country such as ours, the scaling down and privatisation of the public healthcare system would mean that people with modest means would be left without health care. They wouldn’t receive the services they need. Therefore I’m opposed to the privatisation of health care. I don’t want to talk anyone out of risking their own money in a business venture – go ahead, and good luck. But they’ll have no access to public funds, which must be used for the operation of a shared public healthcare system – that’s the purpose those funds must serve.
Migration pressure is growing. Let me quote some figures. In 2020 there were 125,000 illegal border crossings into the European Union. A year later, in 2021, there were 184,000: a 60 per cent increase. Here at Hungary’s southern border, however, there was a similar – or even higher – increase. If we compare the beginning of this year with the beginning of last year, this year almost twice as many people attempted to enter Hungary as did last year. So one can’t say that the European Union has solved the issue of migration. And then a few days ago we heard the interesting news that the Danish minister for immigration said that we must admit that the European Union’s migration or immigration system has collapsed, and that the whole thing is a big lie. And he’s a Social Democrat. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve just looked at the latest figures that I brought with me. In 2020 our police officers and soldiers apprehended 45,000 illegal immigrants, while in 2021 the figure was 122,000. This clearly shows that the number of illegal border-crossing attempts is increasing. I sometimes visit the border regions, speak to soldiers and police officers, and conduct inspections. And I can tell you that I don’t think Hungarians are aware of what tremendous work our soldiers and police officers are doing at the borders. Theirs is a very difficult job. There are also physical clashes of course, but those aren’t the main source of the difficulty, because we’re coping with those. After all, soldiers and police officers serving at the border are in a stronger position than migrants; even though they’re sometimes individually in physical danger, they still have the advantage. What takes a toll on them the most is the need to be on permanent standby. Furthermore, they’re deployed from other parts of the country, they’ve left their families at home, sometimes on the other side of the country. And they need to be alert at all times, because they can’t allow their attention to waver for a second. Migrants have come across the border both under and over the fence – and if the fence doesn’t stop illegal migrants, we can start gathering and guiding them back to the border zone, as our soldiers are required to do by law. So the need for constant alertness, concentration and monotony are a great trial for those who work there. We should be grateful for their work. So, compared with the previous year, in 2021 the number of illegal border-crossing attempts more than doubled – in fact it tripled. In just two weeks this year – in 2022 – we’ve already apprehended 4,200 people crossing the border illegally. If we extrapolate this to the whole year, this will result in a very high number. So, it’s not just that this hasn’t been solved, but migration as a threat – as a danger – remains with us and will do so in the years ahead. Therefore we’ll have to reinforce our defences, and in several respects restructure the border defence system. I believe we’ll have to involve new forces, because public security demands it, and also the capacity of our police officers demands that we minimise the number of them transferred from other parts of the country and that we increase the number of dedicated armed officers who are specifically employed for border defence. The Interior Minister, the National Security Cabinet and I have been working on this for some months. So we’ll deploy new forces. The fact that the threat hasn’t gone away is clearly shown by an opinion that I was shocked to read the other day: an opinion voiced recently by the European Union’s commissioner for immigration, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, a Swedish lady. One keeps hoping that when we win one battle or another at the summit of prime ministers, that it should have a sobering effect on the other side. But it doesn’t! This fine Swedish commissioner says that immigrants are indispensable for our economies and societies, and that post-pandemic economic and social recovery is only possible with the active involvement of immigrants and migrant organisations. We believe that the very opposite is true, and we don’t want any of that. We don’t want migrant organisations and immigrants taking part in the recovery of the Hungarian economy, because this is the country of the Hungarian people, and we ourselves must restart it. I can now even say that in the past tense, and say that we had to restart it. The Hungarian people don’t want any of that mentality, they don’t want any of that approach – even if in the short term letting in migrants would be cheaper than detaining them, because defending our borders costs a very large amount of money. And even though many of the migrants would clearly move on from Hungary towards Austria and Germany, Hungary is defending the external borders of the whole of Europe. Naturally our responsibility is primarily to the Hungarian people; but we must never forget that the Hungarians always also act as border fortress captains. We are the nation which serves as the Western world’s fortress captains: we defend the borders of the whole of Europe. Since 2015 this has cost us Hungarians some 600 billion forints. How much is 600 billion forints? It’s the sum that this year we’ll repay families who paid taxes, despite the tax allowances due to them on account of their children; that figure is also around 600 billion forints. In other words, since 2015 defending our borders and keeping Hungary and Europe safe has cost us an amount equivalent to the income tax paid by families in an entire year. Meanwhile Brussels isn’t supporting this; in fact, instead of helping us it’s shooting us in the back, and attacking us. It’s giving money – or would give money – to us in order to bring in migrants. But Hungary won’t bring in immigrants. And yet they don’t provide money for us to defend ourselves – to build a fence, for example. So, the fierce – if not bloody – debate on this that we’ve seen flaring up among the prime ministers every six months in recent years will continue in the future as well. There’s a cultural difference between the Western and Central European parts of the continent. They want immigrant countries, countries relying on immigration, and they even state that they are immigrant countries; the new German government’s programme declares that Germany is an immigrant country. Earlier, in the 1970s or ‘80s, one government’s programme specifically stated that Germany was not an immigrant country: those who came in would have to go home. Now they’re stating that they’ve become an immigrant country. But there’s a very large political distance between that and the mentality of the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Croats; because we don’t want to become immigrant countries. We don’t want to – and will never – say that Muslim adults are a good substitute for Christian children who aren’t being born; because when our work and our lives come to an end, we want to leave our countries to our own children, and not to strangers. This is a strong life instinct, which isn’t really active in the West anymore – or it appears to be diminishing. Over here, however, this is a determining attitude and life force: sooner or later we all come to the end of our lives, and we want to know who’s inheriting all that we’ve worked for, who will live in this country, and what – after all – it is that we’ve worked for. And – as has always been the case in Hungary, for 36 or 37 generations – we want the next generation of Hungarians to inherit what the previous generations worked for. We shall not be swayed from this. This is how we think, and we don’t want to change. And this causes a cultural difference. In the period ahead, a major task for European politics will be to somehow bridge this cultural divide, and to keep together the increasingly divergent countries of the European Union.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.