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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Sunday News”

Katalin Nagy: Around five thousand healthcare workers in Hungary have already been vaccinated against the coronavirus. According to news reports, at present some eighty thousand vaccines are available. I’d like to welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What dictates the speed of vaccination? I’m asking this because we’ve heard that in Israel almost a million people have been vaccinated in just two weeks.

Happy New Year! A warm welcome to your listeners. This is a simple technical issue. We have a vaccination plan. If we don’t have enough vaccines for everyone, the vaccination plan determines which groups of people should be vaccinated, and according to what schedule. This is why at this stage we’re now vaccinating doctors and nurses working in the healthcare system – especially those working in intensive care units. These will be followed by other healthcare workers, because they’re on the front line. And so the technical implementation of vaccination is adjusted to that quantity. We have enough doses of vaccine for 35,000 people, and we can administer these at more than twenty designated vaccination points in hospitals. But if tomorrow morning, say, several million vaccines arrived in the country, we have a plan for the designation of vaccination points which would enable us to carry out rapid mass vaccination at least as well as the Israelis – or perhaps even better.

But will a million vaccines arrive here?

What I’m saying is that the limitation on mass vaccination in Hungary isn’t a lack of technical capacity. In Hungary we have more than ten thousand network termination points in premises which are used as polling stations in elections. When a very large quantity of vaccines arrives and we need to vaccinate large numbers of people all at once, vaccination points will not only be set up in healthcare institutions, but also elsewhere, in buildings where we have these network termination points – more than ten thousand of them. You’ll need to go to the locations where you normally vote in elections. For the time being, however, I’m afraid there’s no danger of a live test of this system, because as far as we know at the moment we won’t be receiving millions of doses at once. The European Union is dealing with vaccines coming from the West. We – the 27 Member States – have agreed that we won’t enter into separate contracts with pharmaceutical companies on an individual basis; history will decide whether or not this was a good decision. Instead of this we’re jointly entering a single contract and placing a single order, and then Brussels will distribute the vaccines among the Member States as fairly as possible. I’m not satisfied with the speed of this, because there are manufacturers whose products were available in Canada, Britain and Israel sooner than in the European Union. But this is the responsibility of the Brusseleers, and they’re dealing with it. We’re taking care of Eastern relations, because Brussels isn’t dealing with them. Nevertheless, people have two legs not one, and so it’s better to stand on two legs; this is why, in addition to Western vaccines, we’re also making enquiries about vaccines and therapeutics developed in the East. We know that the Russian vaccine is good, but there isn’t enough of it and there probably won’t be, because the production capacities over there are limited. On the other hand the Chinese vaccine appears to be more promising, and it seems that it will be possible to access larger quantities of that sooner. In an ideal scenario one would be able to choose whether one wants to be vaccinated with a vaccine from the Western world or with the Chinese vaccine. The Chinese vaccine isn’t available yet, however. Right now our scouts, our pharmaceutical monitoring teams, are in Beijing checking the laboratories where the Chinese vaccine is being manufactured; and after that the Hungarian authority will have to make the final decision. This is where we stand right now on the vaccine front.

You’ve said that hopefully the vaccines will be distributed fairly in the European Union. But will this be the case? There are reports – and the Italian press is in a frenzy over this – that Germany has bilateral access to far more vaccines than the other EU Member States. How is this possible?

I’m not quite sure about the cause of the Italians’ anger, but we could also take advantage of that option. We’ve placed joint orders for vaccines from Western pharmaceutical companies, but those companies have additional capacities – as they’re not only supplying Western Europe or the European Union, but also South America and the United States. And it’s possible to try to come to separate agreements about supplies over and above the EU quota. We’ve also sent out agents who are trying to find out whether it’s possible to conclude a bilateral business agreement with one or another pharmaceutical company or vaccine manufacturer for supplies over and above the European quota. So far we haven’t succeeded, but I can see that there is such a bypass route. This isn’t affected by the agreement, and if the Germans are doing it they’re not violating the agreement, because that said that we’d order a fixed quantity together, but we never said that countries wouldn’t be allowed to conduct separate individual negotiations. This is possible, but over and above the quota that the 27 Member States have reserved. That is what takes priority.

Is there a precise timetable in the European Union about when vaccines will arrive? You’re saying that at the moment there’s no hope of receiving millions of doses, and that we can only hope for a slower rate of delivery.

Reports are variable, and sometimes contradictory. There’s a Hungarian delegate in the body which reviews these issues, meaning that we’re at the top table, and we’re receiving rapid reports from there. But it wouldn’t be just or fair to hold the EU responsible for this: we can’t blame Brussels for the fact that manufacturers themselves are unable to provide precise delivery dates and quantities. From that point of view, Brussels is also at the mercy of large pharmaceutical companies.

According to one medical opinion, it would be desirable to vaccinate 40 to 50 per cent of the population by March, because then it would be possible to avoid a third wave. Do you think there’s any chance of this?

We must be careful with these hypothetical situations, and we must keep our imaginations in check in some way. So it feels good to speculate about how many people we could vaccinate at a certain rate, what the optimal rate would be, and what would be the best way of saving lives or the economy. But I refuse to give in to that temptation: I’m reining in my imagination, because the question is whether vaccines are available or not, and there’s no point in speculating. When the vaccines are physically here, we will vaccinate people. And if we have large quantities, we’ll be rapidly vaccinating large numbers of people. If deliveries are slower, we’ll be vaccinating fewer people at a slower rate. What we would like is irrelevant. There’s no point in speculating; instead we should focus on the detailed work that will enable the rapid placement of the vaccines we receive. This is what I suggest to everyone. Of course it would be best if we could vaccinate everyone tomorrow morning.

Do you think that members of the public have access to enough information about the vaccine? An MEP for the MSZP [Hungarian Socialist Party] has said – perhaps for purely politically motivated reasons – that he can’t see that the Government has a vaccination plan.

First of all, the Chief Medical Officer holds daily press conferences on behalf of the Operational Group. She speaks slowly and comprehensibly, so that understanding what she says isn’t an impossible challenge – even for an MSZP Member of the European Parliament. We always provide the latest information on precisely where we stand. I’m only too happy to talk about our vaccination plan: about how healthcare workers are the number one priority, followed by those working in social care; they’re followed by the elderly, who are most at risk; that the elderly are followed by law enforcement officers, and so on. We’ve already stated this so many times, but there’s no reason not to say it for the hundredth time. Aside from the plan for the order in which people are vaccinated when we have fewer vaccines, there’s another vaccination plan: the technical implementation of mass vaccination. Information on this will be provided for everyone when vaccines are available in large quantities; until then, we can only talk about it in a hypothetical sense. Earlier I said that we have more than ten thousand network termination points suitable for mass vaccination. This was to indicate that in terms of implementation there’s no obstacle to rapid mass vaccination in Hungary. The only problem is a shortage of vaccines.

What progress has been made in organising a Hungarian vaccine manufacturing facility? I’ve heard that in May an agreement was concluded between the University of Debrecen and the National Centre for Public Health.

After the outbreak of the virus most countries realised that they must have capacities of their own, even though this is a loss-making strategy in normal times when there’s no pandemic – as that major industrial capacity would be unable to manufacture products for sale, or only to a limited extent; and so in normal times they’d tend to make a loss. Therefore everyone is cautious about the construction of such facilities, such vaccine manufacturing plants. In the first wave of the epidemic we learnt that while they may well generate losses in normal times, in a pandemic they can save lives – many hundreds or many thousands of lives. So these capacities must be created at a national level, and even if they generate losses in normal times Hungary must have its own capacities, permitting rapid mass treatment in a pandemic. With this in mind, we’ve started building plants, we’ve launched research projects, and Hungarian vaccine research projects are also in progress. We should return to this subject when we have some tangible results. Nevertheless, we’ve done everything we can to be prepared for the next global pandemic – the timing and background of which is completely unknown. In Hungary between the two waves we did everything possible to have enough ventilators, doctors and hospital beds, and to supply our hospitals with protective equipment – which is why we went into the second wave fully armed and prepared. But in addition to this we’ve been doing everything we can to have medicines, therapeutic drugs we produce ourselves and, if necessary, to have our own vaccines and the capacity to manufacture them. This work is in progress. Incidentally, everyone’s using this word Pfizer – that’s so difficult to pronounce, but I think that’s the right way; but we should note that in fact it’s a Hungarian vaccine. I’ve spoken to the professor…

Katalin Karikó…

That’s right. I had a long conversation with Katalin Karikó on New Year’s Eve, and I found out that although a German professor is also involved in this, those working on – or directing – the research project are mostly Hungarians. With only a little exaggeration we can say that this is a Hungarian vaccine: it’s the product of American money and Hungarian brains. We have every reason to be proud of this scientist: a lady from Kisújszállás, as I found out, whose daughter is a two-time Olympic rowing champion, competing for the United States. I think she won those medals at the London Olympics, and she’s also won some world championship titles; so we can be truly proud of the entire family. I also found out that they left Hungary in the mid-1980s; at that time their little girl was only two years old, but she can both speak and write Hungarian – which clearly shows that the Professor’s heart is in the right place.

As we’re talking about the vaccine, I’d like to ask your opinion on a statement made by the head of an institution that’s associated with the Left. Péter Krekó [of Political Capital] told the Brussels portal Politico – and I’ll quote him verbatim – that “If you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, Orbán can suffer the political consequences”.

There are no limits to evil, only to our imagination. You’ll rarely hear a more wicked statement than that. At any rate, we can say that Hungarian health care – which is continually decried, denigrated, and sometimes even reviled – has stood its ground in this long two-wave virus much better than the healthcare systems of many other countries considered to be in a better position than Hungary. Here people haven’t died due to a lack of provision in hospitals. Here patients haven’t had to lie in beds in hospital corridors. Here doctors haven’t had to decide which patient should be kept alive because a shortage of ventilators has forced them to choose who will be put on them. We’ve had no such situations: Hungarian nurses and Hungarian trainee doctors – that is residents, or newly qualified graduates preparing for their final specialist exams – have all stood their ground magnificently. And of course it’s emerged that while technical equipment is important in health care, because one really does need protective equipment, what matters most is human quality. And in terms of human quality Hungarian doctors and nurses have performed outstandingly. And I can say that the same has been true in the education system. Teachers have readily agreed to change over to online teaching: despite all the difficulties involved, and despite provocation, they’ve been prepared to work, even in the midst of a pandemic. We’re also putting them to the test now, and thanks to them, many hundreds of thousands of jobs in Hungary have been saved; because if they hadn’t agreed to continue teaching, parents would have had to stay at home with their children instead of going to work. So we should salute them, too. And in general, if you follow the news from various countries about how people are cooperating and pulling together in the fight against the virus, we must also rank Hungary in one of the higher categories. Earlier we would often say that we’re a divided people – this is what we’ve been taught, and we ourselves tend to spread this notion. At times there are concrete examples of this, but on the whole, when we’re in great distress, it turns out that Hungarians are strong in terms of discipline, unity and a sense of responsibility for one another. Here there haven’t been any demonstrations against the restrictions; even though no one liked any of these restrictions, everyone understood and accepted them. As a method, the national consultation has also been very helpful. In the summer we asked the public about where we should place the emphasis in the defence operation against the virus, and what they thought about the various elements of the operation. So we have every reason to be proud, especially of those working in health care. We’ve fully equipped our hospitals, and we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of the pandemic we’ve enacted pay rises for both nurses and doctors at a rate and pace that I think exceed the capacities of the Hungarian economy and Hungary as a whole.

Protection of the economy. The most recent of the successful economic protection measures that we’ve heard of was the Government’s support for hotel operators, paying them 80 per cent of the value of revenue lost due to cancelled reservations. I think this must have been a great help to players in the tourism industry, but what additional measures can be expected? We know that some local governments are very unhappy with the cancellation or halving of the local business tax, because they say that the Government is thereby putting local governments in an impossible position.

Every tax cut puts those collecting taxes in a difficult position, but everyone must appreciate that now we must protect jobs, and it’s businesses that provide people with jobs. Businesses can offer people jobs if they’re subjected to the smallest possible tax burdens. In general tax reductions are unpopular with bureaucrats; and, as I see it now, not all local governments appreciate the importance of these measures. I understand that it’s difficult for them, but in times of crisis taxes must be reduced. The state must reduce taxes, and local governments – the local representatives of the state – must also reduce taxes. Indeed the banks must also make a contribution, as during the repayment moratorium they’re unable to collect the interest on loans which were taken out earlier. We’ve extended this moratorium, which we introduced in the spring, to cover both businesses and private individuals right up until July. So in this situation everyone must make a contribution, and tax reduction points in the right direction. I know that the Left doesn’t see the solution in tax reductions, but generally in tax increases; but that’s a different philosophy, a different way of thinking, and I don’t believe in it. I believe in the need to help businesses into a position which enables them to provide jobs for as many people as possible. And facts appear to favour this school of thought, our way of thinking, as we mustn’t forget that we’ve managed to preserve jobs even during the second wave of the virus. Compared with this time last year, before the pandemic, unemployment has increased by something over sixty thousand. And when I look at the European statistical rankings for unemployment, Hungary still has the third best figures. In terms of curbing unemployment in the midst of the crisis, the ranking is still the following: the Czechs, the Germans, and then the Hungarians. This means that we’ve managed to save jobs. And what I believe is even more important, or at least as important, is that the economic consequences of the pandemic haven’t resulted in the country needing to renounce a single one of its major plans – including the reintroduction of the “thirteenth month’s” pension, which is starting this month. We haven’t had to reschedule, cancel or forget this measure, and we shall go ahead with it. And neither have we had to retreat from family support or reschedule our home creation plan: on 1 January we were able to launch Hungary’s biggest ever home creation programme. So during the pandemic Hungary has defended all its large-scale plans and goals. I think that this is a major achievement. Naturally the credit for this goes primarily to businesses, and secondly to those working in government economic departments.

Can we expect more economic protection measures like this, or will they emerge only after the Government has assessed the situation?

Well, in the decade ahead – and in the rest of this year – new horizons will open up before us. It’s difficult to talk about these at present, because they’re so at odds with our present misery, when we still need to get home by eight in the evening, and all the disease control restrictions are making our lives more difficult. It will be hard to believe me when I tell you what I’m talking about, so I’ll speak very cautiously. The fact is that the ten years between 2010 and 2020 were our most successful decade in the past one hundred years. Serious economists don’t really dispute this. The minimum wage has doubled, the average wage has doubled and households’ savings have trebled. This doesn’t mean that everything in Hungary is as it should be; it only means that the economy has done well in the past decade, and we’ve come close to what is effectively full employment – perhaps even reaching it in some years. Now I can say that the next ten years could be even better. The Hungarian economic system is about to undergo a change in dimension which few people today appreciate; but we’ve accumulated enormous development resources and have identified absolutely huge programmes. In ten years’ time we’ll hardly recognise the economy. It will be a digitalised economy and a circular economy: an economic system that can recycle its own waste, with a completely different energy system and dramatically reduced carbon dioxide emissions; and we’ll also be able to maintain full employment and grow noticeably faster than the western half of the European Union. A completely different world will unfold before us: in the decade ahead people’s wealth will increase, there will be more affluence, they’ll live in larger homes, and they’ll also have more children. This can be predicted with great certainty. We’ve prepared the plans for this, and we have the development plans. Mihály Varga’s team has allocated the necessary funds, while the plans for the utilisation of those funds have been developed by Minister Palkovics’s team. So the decade ahead could be a fantastic decade – and that’s also true for this first year of it. The first two – or perhaps three – months of 2021 will be miserable, as a result of the virus and the restrictions. But once we’ve emerged from that – and that depends on the available quantity of vaccines – we’ll set out on an upward path at seemingly incredible speed. The world economy could also easily embark on a path of unprecedentedly rapid growth; up until the end of the year, major think tanks released quite a lot of studies on this. That’s the school I belong to, and I see the potential in it. And the Hungarian economy will need to grow even faster, given that the crisis management method we’ve adopted is different from that pursued in the West; because while they’ve focused all their efforts on maintaining consumption levels, we’ve focused on preserving jobs. We’ve used all possible resources, loans and budget deficit opportunities for protecting investments and launching new ones. The investments we decided on in 2020 will start bearing fruit in 2021–22. At the same time I also expect a rapid international recovery, with Hungary’s recovery being even more rapid. I believe that we’re standing on the threshold of great times. What I’m talking about doesn’t match the feeling we get when we leave this studio and walk through this gloomy, grey, damp, dismal weather. But everyone knows that spring will come, the country will be green again, the sun will shine, the crisis will be over, we’ll be able to get together again, and normal life in Hungary will resume. And it’s against this background that we’ll see the launch of the industrial capacities for which the investment is now being made.

The Government’s desire to see investments also requires investors. What are the prospects? Last year, in 2020, did foreign investors come to Hungary to do business here, despite knowing that the situation was difficult everywhere across the world?

Investors are coming both from the West and the East, with almost half of them now coming from the East. This is a fine thing, and Hungary is a good place, a promising place. But I believe that investments by Hungarian businesses are even more important. It’s no accident that I’ve asked local governments to accept a reduction in the local business tax, because this affects small and medium-sized enterprises – most of which are Hungarian. The money that local governments aren’t able to collect now won’t go to the Government, but to Hungarian small and medium-sized businesses and the people working in them. This is the right path. I trust that there will also be growth in the Hungarian sector of the Hungarian economy, because the Hungarian economy comprises two sectors: foreign investors and Hungarian investors. In fact, by the end of the decade we should achieve or reach the point at which the profits repatriated to Hungary by Hungarian-owned businesses investing abroad equal the amount that foreign businesses operating in Hungary take out of the country. This will take a few years of hard work. We must support investment abroad, both within this region and beyond. I think that by the second half of the decade these two amounts – the profits taken out of the country and the profits repatriated by Hungarian businesses – will start converging; and by the end of the decade I hope they’ll be in balance. Once that’s achieved we’ll have a safer economy that’s less vulnerable to the outside world.

Returning a little to practical issues, when can we expect the restrictions to be lifted? What should we pay attention to?

Cecília: we should pay attention to [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller, because she will announce the good news. Perhaps I don’t need to outline the difficulties involved, but phasing is a difficult task. Once we see that vaccines will be available, deciding how long before their arrival we should ease the restrictions is a serious question – particularly if you can’t be sure that the vaccines will indeed arrive. If you start easing the restrictions before the date you expect the vaccine to arrive and it doesn’t arrive, then you’ll spark another wave of infections which will spread across the country. Everyone here would like to open up, and we feel the huge desire to rid ourselves of this misery; but if the timing isn’t right, we could see the start of a third wave. We’ve fought back the second wave: it’s clear that we’ve managed to bring it down, and even though we haven’t yet crippled it, the struggle will now continue on the floor. We’ve brought it down onto the wrestling mat, and now we only need to pin it down. The numbers clearly show that we’ve curbed the second wave; the task now is to not set off a third wave – to prevent the start of another wave.

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