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

Katalin Nagy: The Government has extended the restrictions on free movement for another week from Saturday. At the same time it seems that these restrictions are being relaxed in the western part of Europe, in Germany and Spain, and also in our immediate neighbourhood in Austria. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Isn’t it a cause for concern that if there are relaxations in our immediate neighbourhood that this will have an effect – and not a good effect – on Hungary and the pattern of the pandemic?

Good morning, and a very good morning to your listeners. It’s not the best news to begin an interview with, but naturally we continue to know very little about this virus. So that’s the truth of the matter. And at a time like this, when one sees something dangerous that one knows little about, one’s basic instincts come into play, and one becomes cautious. I think that this survival instinct also guides the Hungarian defence operation. Last time I was here I mentioned that we’re fortunate that between our country and Italy – which is the epicentre of infection in Europe – there is another country: Austria. The fact is that everyone is feeling their way in the dark, but Austria is ahead of us in feeling its way forward. For this reason I don’t see Austria as a threat, but as a type of laboratory. So if they relax certain prohibitions, and try to return to life as normal, then one must observe them, take note, analyse and learn from that; and the approaches that work over there can also be adopted here. We’re glad that for once we can say that we are not the laboratory guinea pigs, but someone else’s geographical situation has given them that role. Austria is taking steps that we would also like to take; because I’m well aware that being at home – let’s say in a flat in a high-rise estate, but even in a house with a garden – with two or three children being taught online is a huge ordeal. Well I can imagine what’s happening there. I want to help people – just as I think everyone else does – to return to the normal pattern of their lives. But initially I dare not tell Hungarians that we’ll be relaxing the restrictions. But if the measures in Austria have the desired effect, then they’ll soon reopen schools over there. So if we see that it has worked in Austria, and the number of infections has stopped rising, and at the same time our healthcare system is fully prepared, then – and only then – we can also think about doing the same. At the moment I advise that our existing restrictions should remain in place. In dealing with the pandemic, our best guide is the wisdom that exhorts us to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”.

As part of healthcare preparations, quite a major problem is freeing up hospital beds. Why is it necessary to free up so many beds? Up until now 50 per cent of hospital beds have had to be made available for patients, some in intensive care; in one week from now this ratio must be increased to 60 per cent. Many people feel that perhaps some people are being sent home from hospital who perhaps shouldn’t go home, because it’s not certain that they can be cared for at home. 

These are all important questions. This is like going back to first principles, and asking ourselves why we should do one thing or another. So over the past few weeks we’ve been pulling out all the stops and mounting a very disciplined protective operation across the entire country to slow the spread of the pandemic. We’re slowing its spread so that in the meantime we can prepare the Hungarian healthcare system to be able to restore people to health and to be able to save lives in the event of mass infection. This defence has been successful, as although we haven’t been able to kill the virus, we’ve gained time, and our hospitals have started to prepare themselves. This also applies to equipment which was needed, because in Hungary the amount of equipment was adequate for normal circumstances – but we’re not in normal circumstances now. So in this new situation adequate supplies of equipment needed to be sourced, and in effect we needed to build an air bridge between Hungary and China. And now we’ve stockpiled the necessary equipment. So in recent weeks we’ve needed to work on ensuring – and this has occupied every minute of my working day – that there will be enough ventilators and healthcare workers, even in the event of a worst-case scenario. Yes, but what is enough? This is where your question comes in. There are a number of different opinions on this. My starting point is that there are more than one thousand care homes in Hungary, and if only ten elderly residents in every care home are infected and need hospital treatment, then this will come to ten thousand people. So these are huge numbers. Now we’re looking at the numbers as they come in day by day, and in total more than one hundred people have died. Each and every one is a great loss, but as an overall number this this is something that we can bear. We look at the number of people who have been infected, and by international comparison this is also a number which can be borne. This is the situation today, but the future is still uncertain. So we need to prepare for an uncertain future. We’re paying attention to advice from all quarters – from experts, doctors and scientists. I’ve been regularly consulting them, right up to the present. Taking account of Hungary’s age-related demographics, the proportion of elderly people, and the distribution and sizes of settlements and hospitals across the country, I’ve come to the conclusion that for the worst-case scenario we’ll need 8,000 operational ventilators and more than 30,000 beds – all exclusively dedicated to the care of coronavirus patients. This is the goal. Ensuring that this is achieved is really difficult; but it’s no accident that in recent weeks I’ve been conducting a complete tour of the facilities which have been designated as the main disease control hospitals, so that I can see and hear for myself whether the restructuring that we’re expecting from hospitals is realistic, how it’s developing, and what difficulties hospital directors are grappling with. And I’ve been collecting the necessary information on these experiences.

So what overall picture do these large numbers give us?

Our records show that there are 68,000 hospital beds in Hungary. Of these 68,000 hospital beds, 34 per cent are not occupied by patients. So this is the number of beds which are unoccupied. In order to make half of these 68,000 beds available we need to free up a further 16 per cent of them. So for each of these 16 per cent of Hungarian hospital beds we’ve had to decide whether or not they’re being used by a patient who’s waiting for non-urgent treatment – in which case we can send them home for the meantime. Of course this raises the very difficult question – especially for those of us like me who’ve studied law – of what constitutes urgent or non-urgent medical intervention. Politics cannot accept any role in making this decision, because we don’t possess the necessary knowledge: this is a matter for the relevant experts. Therefore a medical panel has decided which medical interventions are urgent and which are non-urgent. And this panel has issued professional guidelines to hospitals, so that they won’t send home anyone who cannot be cared for at home, or who must be treated in hospital as a matter of urgency. So I can say that this is a medical decision and not a political decision. Naturally this is difficult and unpleasant, because no one finds themselves in hospital for no reason; and it’s a distressing, difficult and disagreeable feeling to have to go home without having been cured because one’s bed will be needed by an infected patient during a pandemic. But I reiterate: this is the case for 16 per cent of all hospital beds, and this problem cannot be solved in any other way. Furthermore, standard hospital beds cannot be converted to intensive care beds simply by wheeling a couple of items of equipment next to them: oxygen supply lines must be installed in the walls – oxygen must be supplied to ventilators. A ventilator is not simply a pump, but an extremely complicated piece of machinery. I’ve had the chance to see these at close quarters, and they have every kind of display, and devices and screens showing various vital indicators. So this is a fairly complicated operation, which also necessitates training hospital workers to use these machines. We’re right in the middle of a major military-style operation, which is naturally causing disruption; but our lives wouldn’t be disrupted if there wasn’t a pandemic. There is a pandemic, however. This isn’t something that we caused, this isn’t something we did: we’ve been saddled with it by others. Now we have to live with it, and must manage its consequences.

Last week, when I asked you about your experiences in your hospital visits, you said that one of the reasons that these visits are necessary is that when you ask doctors or medical directors questions the answers you get are frequently too imprecise. This was clearly true for the number of beds. Do you think that now this number is more definite? Do you now see when these beds will be freed up?

We’re in a better position now than we were a week ago. In general, hospital directors, doctors and nurses really are holding the line with honour – indeed with honour that goes beyond the call of duty. They’re willing and able to work to the full extent of their capacity, and these many doctors and nurses are a great asset for Hungary. Our hospital directors are also good, but it’s true that management wasn’t quite as efficient in normal circumstances as it needs to be in a pandemic. This explains why we needed to assign a hospital commander to every hospital, drawn from the ranks of the police. They ensure clarity – a military level of clarity – on the quantity of supplies hospitals have, on how much they use on a daily basis, on whether they have the necessary reserves in store, and on whether replacement supplies are properly scheduled. Under normal circumstances hospitals don’t operate with such precision and efficiency, but in a pandemic this is how they should operate. And now doctors, as well. Hospitals tend to be independent professional institutions, and hospital directors normally enjoy a great deal of autonomy, with the time and opportunity to fully discuss specialist medical matters. But these are not normal times: this is a pandemic. The Operational Group makes decisions, and for hospital directors the implementation of the Operational Group’s decisions is not a possibility, but an obligation. This is a new situation, and it’s not simple – it’s a little tougher than it was before, and all of us must adapt to it. But this process is under way. And so by the time we get to the point – which is not far off, as from what I can see the numbers are rising – of the epidemic entering the mass infection stage, all of us – from hospital receptionists, nurses and doctors to the Health Minister and the Prime Minister – will have got used to and have understood this new situation: we’ll have learnt how to behave in a mass pandemic, how to mount a defence against this peril.

In every instance the ultimate decision is made by the Government, but clearly you consult very many people, and you’ve mentioned that over the Easter weekend the Government gave leaders of local governments in settlements powers to enforce rules which are different from those adopted nationally. You’ve now extended this authorisation to this weekend. So do you believe that there are advantages to the Government delegating decision-making to the local level?

Whether one thing or another has advantages or disadvantages is, of course, something one can speculate on from behind an office desk, but such knowledge is uncertain. Therefore I’ve more faith in practice; and the Easter weekend was a good practical exercise, as then for the first time – last week – we gave local governments the option to introduce local regulations that are more stringent than the national restrictions. Now we know how this works in practice. We’ve evaluated our experiences, and we’ve concluded that this works well. Mayors coped very well with this task, with this situation: they found solutions and made good decisions. Once again, fine weather is on the way, and while we won’t have another Easter now, we’re expecting a fine weekend, and the situation will be the same as a week ago: people will want to go outdoors, to the countryside, to resorts and holiday homes. So there’s the renewed danger of an increase in the number of face-to-face interactions. Therefore, based on our positive experiences, with mayors using their freedom of choice well, we thought that we would give them that freedom again. Naturally in a country the general rules must be enforced, but local differences are so large that it’s worth recognising them through giving mayors certain powers. It’s absolutely clear that when we talk about the future of these restrictions, we won’t be able to lump together different types of settlement. We can clearly see that the majority of infections are in Budapest; so sooner or later we won’t be able to avoid introducing specific rules for Budapest, or for the Mayor of Budapest to introduce specific rules for the capital – and this is why I’m happy about the cooperation we’ve forged with him. Some 60 per cent of infections are in Budapest, and together with Pest County this region accounts for 80 per cent of infections. It’s absolutely obvious that it’s illogical for a village of a few thousand people to implement the same measures as the Budapest area, which accounts for 80 per cent of infections, and where public transport is a further source of infection. So sooner or later the time will come when we have to differentiate between different types of settlement. I don’t think that time has come yet, but perhaps we could consider it next week.

When a local government adopts its own decisions and introduces restrictions, will they also have to take responsibility? Taking a practical example, you mentioned that if there are a thousand care homes in Hungary and if in each one only ten residents fall ill, we’ll need ten thousand hospital beds. I have to ask you about the relationship between the responsibilities of local governments and care homes, because data has just been released which shows that eighteen elderly residents at the Pesti út care home have died after being infected with coronavirus. In this instance the operator’s responsibility didn’t seem to have been effective. What will be the upshot of this?

I believe that what you’re referring to is an important incident, a fact that we can’t simply set aside; and clearly we can’t let it pass without consequences. But everything in its own time. I suggest that we should establish what needs to be established, but at this point we shouldn’t be looking for those who are responsible. Today we should be seeking cooperation, today we should be seeking ways to combat the problem, today we should be helping one another. And then, when we’ve put all this behind us, we’ll return to the subject of what’s been happening in care homes operated by local governments, and what conditions we’ve found in each. We’ve recorded these findings and they’ve been logged for the future, but now is not the time for this. I’m striving for relations with the Mayor of Budapest and the other mayors which are as close and comradely as possible, because the danger hasn’t passed yet. The time for apportioning responsibility hasn’t come yet. That will come later. Now we must work, we must be on our guard, and we’re working. At times like this certain survival instincts must come to the surface – and Hungarians have strong survival instincts. In essence this is a country with a thousand years of history and with a strong instinct for stewardship: Hungarians know what’s been entrusted to them, and they also know what they have responsibility for. In olden times they could even put geographical limits on this: the boundaries of their plot of land, their garden, their house. But even in today’s world of housing estates it’s perhaps not impossible for one to measure precisely how many square metres of this country one is personally responsible for. And this is what we’re talking about here: how large an area – one’s house and yard – one is responsible for; and how many people – living together in one’s family – one is responsible for. These instincts come to the surface because it’s impossible to mount this defence operation successfully with directions coming only from the centre. It’s important for people everywhere to feel their own small responsibilities, and to act on them. The head of a family, a family should discuss this, make arrangements and take decisions. Decisions should be made the same way in a small village – and also in towns and cities. Hungarians tend to have a sense of stewardship, which means that they quickly appreciate and understand their responsibility for certain areas and people: they don’t wait for central instructions, but they themselves take the action that needs to be taken. Our people is an intelligent one – even though this is not always evident. But on the whole, in times like this – in times of trouble – it’s clear that we have a certain degree of innate, natural intelligence that immediately defines a path for us and tells us what we should do, where our responsibility lies and what our duty is. Of course help from the centre is welcome, and I’m trying to help everyone: the state’s responsibility cannot be ignored – especially in a complicated situation like a pandemic. But this must be supplemented with the responsibility of the heads of families, villages, towns and cities. This is starting to work well. My calculations suggest that we haven’t yet reached the peak. This morning I started my day at the meeting of the Operational Group, where we assessed when and how we will reach the peak, and how long we will stay there. The difficult stage – the truly difficult stage – is yet to come. In the days ahead we must count on there being a faster rise in the number of new infections. We are about to enter the phase of mass infection. And as I see it, by the time that phase arrives we will have the necessary number of beds and ventilators – and also the workers, doctors and nurses who can operate them. Everything will be in place for us to be prepared to face the coming surge.

Let’s look at financial and economic matters. Finance Minister Mihály Varga has said that you’ve spent HUF 500 billion from the disease control fund on the containment operation. We know that there’s HUF 663 billion in this fund – at least that was the initial sum. The remainder is not all that much. Will it be enough?

There is no upper limit. Just as has been the case up until now, there will be no financial obstacles to the defence operation. We have created enormous capacities. At present the number of ventilators and anaesthetic machines in an operational condition is around two to three thousand. This number is rising every day, and it will reach eight thousand. Our warehouses are full of supplies we’ve procured that are needed for containment of the pandemic. I understand that supplies have been delivered to hospitals that are sufficient for ten days’ operational needs. The same is true for care homes. As I see it, in this state of war – if I can put it that way – we have the munitions; and thanks to Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and his colleagues, consignments are arriving from a variety of places on a continuous basis. We’ve deployed the entire Hungarian diplomatic arsenal, from the Turkic Council to China, and we’re receiving help and purchasing the necessary equipment from wherever we can. So there will be no shortage of money, and we will have the equipment.

According to a survey assessing management of the pandemic, Hungary is the fourth safest country in Europe. This is undoubtedly a recognition of the measures adopted. But returning to the economy…

Sorry, if you’ll allow me, we shouldn’t take this too seriously. It’s completely irrelevant what the score is in the sixtieth minute of the match. We’ll see who did what and how well at the end: after the ninetieth minute, after the referee has blown the whistle – or when the peace treaty is being concluded, to use a wartime analogy. At this point, we can only report on battles, and we have fought well in the battles so far. That’s all there is, nothing more.

From today businesses can apply for wage supplements which the state has agreed to pay, and Mr. Varga has also announced a number of tax allowances. We’ve also heard about the debt repayment moratorium and the suspension of employment-related contributions. Further details are emerging every day, or every other day. A great many people hope that the Government will find a way to help them with their lives, too. Are you planning any further measures, or should we wait until all these new measures have been implemented?

We’re talking about hundreds of measures. We’ve combined these measures into a large-scale plan, the elements of which are logically and technically interrelated, and on which many people have been working. Here also we should declare our pride in it only at the end, but I have high hopes for it. No one in Hungarian economic history has ever prepared such a comprehensive economic protection action plan on such a scale. The preparation of this plan is a major achievement in itself, and everyone who took part in it deserves recognition. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we’ll have to see how it turns out. This is what is happening now: we’re beginning to implement these decisions, and we’ll see what they lead to. I’m hoping for the best, but I’m cautious. I’m not as brave as the Governor of the Central Bank, who says that there won’t be economic decline, that the Hungarian economy will continue to grow and not shrink. I dare not say that, because across the whole of Europe everyone is speculating on whether their own economies’ output will fall by 10 per cent or only 5 per cent. It would be an enormous feat if we could survive this crisis with a growth level of around zero per cent. The Central Bank is hoping for more, and it’s undoubtedly right in the sense that we’ve mobilised resources on a scale unprecedented in any previous economic plan in Hungary. Economic actors should consider that although naturally everyone would like economic life to return to how it was before the pandemic, it’s important to understand that life in the months ahead won’t be like it was earlier – and that it will probably never be the same again. In a few months’ time economies won’t be the same as they were before the pandemic. Some will prove to be viable, but others will be beyond salvage. So not only will the Government need to provide help for businesses and employers, but businesses themselves will also need to consider which of their activities can remain viable, which ones will be able to generate profits after the pandemic, and which parts of their businesses have lost markets permanently. It is better to face up to this than to delude ourselves into thinking that with the Government’s help everything can be maintained, and that after the pandemic everything will continue as it was before. No: everyone must adapt. Naturally this also applies to the Government, and to the authorities and employers. But it’s no accident that we’re also investing large sums of money in retraining schemes, because workers themselves will also have to consider whether in August, September or this time next year they will have jobs in the fields they’ve worked in up until now. So now we’re expecting a little more from everyone than simply weathering the crisis. We expect everyone to think about their own personal future, and to find their potential path to prosperity. Naturally we’re providing wage supplements. We’ve published the details, and we’ll pay a certain percentage of wages. We’re offering major tax reductions, which will leave more than two hundred billion forints in the economy. We’re offering procedural relief measures in taxation. Small and medium-sized enterprises that are unable to pay their taxes can apply to reschedule their tax liabilities, or apply for tax exemption. Also, a taxpayer cannot be deprived of their “reliable” status simply because the crisis means that they’re now unable to pay their taxes on time. We’ve deferred the submission of tax returns – to 30 September, I believe. We must suspend tourism tax obligations, because tourism has taken a huge hit: this sector is in the poorest state, and that’s where the greatest help is needed. At the same time, in Hungary 400,000 people work in tourism, and the whole industry has simply died. Therefore we’ve also raised the limit of the “SZÉP Card” [offering employee benefits]; because we hope that if the Austrian experiments prove to be effective, and we ourselves can relax restrictions in our own lives, then in the summer we can try to breathe some life back into domestic tourism, at least. This large-scale plan has another element, which is the provision of preferential loans – and even interest-free loans – to various businesses. State credit institutions are making two thousand billion forints available. Then there are the debt repayment measures which we were the first to introduce; and I think that the 13th month’s pension is also very important. I can see that many people are joking about it, or are picking it over – asking whether it’s needed, whether it’s needed now, whether it’s needed in this form, and so on. But I can say that life is based on experience, and the Hungarian people’s experience has been that when a major crisis hits, then governments take away their pensions. It’s true that those were left-wing governments, back in 2008–09, but they took away a month’s pension, and they took away a month’s salary. And everyone is concerned, with pensioners being particularly concerned. They’re wondering whether it could turn out that in the end, despite everything the Government says, a situation might arise in Hungary in which even this government, which stands in alliance with pensioners, could eventually be forced to take away part of their pensions – even though over the past ten years we’ve fully honoured our agreement with pensioners, and have not only preserved the value of pensions but have even increased it. I would like to make it clear, and reassure our more than two million older compatriots, that this cannot happen. In fact, what will happen is – and this is why we had to make this announcement now – that from 1 January 2021 we will start reintroducing the 13th month’s pension. So not only will there be no austerity measures, but we will actually provide extra support for our elderly compatriots, our parents and grandparents. They can rely on the Government.

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