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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the M1 television programme “This Evening”

Tünde Volf-Nagy: I welcome our viewers and Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary.

Good evening.

The number of people vaccinated in Hungary has passed the two-million mark, which means that one in five Hungarians has received the vaccine. Why has the number to be vaccinated before it’s possible to open up again been set at 2.5 million? And at the current rate of vaccination, will we reach that number by mid-April?

“Opening” is a deceptive term, suggesting that this is like turning the sign at the entrance to a shop from “closed” to “open”. But this isn’t the case, because one can open in stages. So we prefer to use the word “relaunch”. It will be possible to relaunch the country and the economy in stages – which was the viewpoint put forward by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who participated in the national consultation. And the number of 2.5 million has been designated for us by moral law, because the country must not be relaunched until those most at risk of dying have been vaccinated: until they’ve been removed from a situation in which their lives are in immediate danger. This means people over the age of 65. The elderly need to be paid the most attention, but less attention is often paid to them. I think it is the Government’s responsibility to take special care of them, and to focus strongly on them. This isn’t only because we’re talking about our parents and grandparents, although that argument is compelling enough; but also because it would be immeasurably unjust not to care especially for those who, over the last fifty or sixty years, have carried the country on their backs to where we are now. This is why we’ve drawn up a separate set of rules to protect the elderly. We must not take any risks until all registered people over the age of 65 are vaccinated. And we estimate that vaccinations for all registered people over the age of 65 will have taken place when we’ve vaccinated about 2.5 million people in total.

The World Health Organization has a name for the situation in which it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade people to follow the rules: “quarantine fatigue”. Perhaps this is why in the third wave it isn’t enough to appeal to people’s good sense or insight – for example, when we think of DIY stores that are open, and where, at weekends, you can see pictures that were more usual or acceptable before the pandemic. Many people are asking whether it wouldn’t have been smarter or more tactical to have had a short lockdown with no exceptions.

First of all, I’d like to ask everyone to follow the rules. There aren’t many rules, but they’re simple, clear and understandable. They are worthwhile and they can be adhered to. For example, if we go outdoors, or there are many of us indoors, we should wear masks and keep at the distance from one another that will protect us from infection. Now the third wave is the wave of the British or English virus, which is much more aggressive than the earlier version, and which is spreading faster. Lockdown and staying at home helped when the infections were isolated. Now, however, there is mass infection, and lockdowns and restrictions can only slow it down, not stop it. In the spring it was enough to introduce restrictions, which made it possible to stop the infection. This isn’t the same type of virus: we can only slow it down with restrictions. There’s only one cure, there’s only one way to stop this virus – not just slow it down, but to stop or kill it: vaccination. Therefore we must now focus all our efforts on vaccination.

In the third wave there are many people who see others in their immediate environment falling ill, and many of their family and friends dying – even young people. Therefore, isn’t it perhaps not a good look for the Government to already be talking now about a reopening strategy?

Indeed, very many of us have sustained serious losses: friends, co-workers, family members. It’s also wearing people down, wearing all of us down. Then, when we get beyond the vaccination stage and we’ve tamed the pandemic, we’ll not only need to relaunch the country in economic terms, but we’ll also need to relaunch our communal life, and find our way back towards one another. Now everyone has lost their spirit and good humour – perhaps even their happiness – and the whole of Europe paints a rather unhappy picture. So when I talk about relaunch, I’m not only talking about the economy, but also about revitalising our communities. In this respect culture, art, people of the spirit, churches and priests and pastors will play a particularly prominent role. So this is about more than simply reopening shops or businesses. Nevertheless, we also need to acknowledge that the virus not only harms human lives and makes us sick, but it also destroys jobs and attacks the economy. And reopening factories, reopening shops, hotels and restaurants isn’t something that can be done overnight. This is why it’s important for people to know what to expect, so they can plan their own relaunch. Parents also need to know about what to expect, how long to stay at home and when they can take their children to kindergarten or school again. Therefore we need to protect and vaccinate people, and at the same time help them plan to relaunch their own personal lives.

And as you’ve mentioned vaccinations, the vaccination rate in Hungary is significantly higher than it is in the European Union as a whole, due to our purchase of vaccines from the East. While in the EU the rate is 12.5 per cent, in Hungary it has already surpassed…

20 per cent.

…20 per cent. This is good news, isn’t it? But there’s also bad news: the mortality rate. When can that statistic turn in the right direction?

All I hear is bad news, because vaccinations in themselves are not good news. At best we’re glad that we have vaccines; but the whole situation we find ourselves in is devoid of any kind of romance, good news, happiness, and so forth. So this is a very difficult situation in which all Hungarians find themselves – and not only we Hungarians, but everyone in Europe. Vaccination alone will help: the faster we are vaccinated, the sooner there will be a drop in the number of people who fall ill, and the lower the number of deaths will be. Therefore it’s very important not to give a platform to anti-vaccination voices; it’s important to somehow push them aside. Let’s not give them credence, let’s not pay attention to them. Creating an anti-vaccination atmosphere, agitating and speaking out against vaccination is more than a mistake. I could perhaps call it a sin, because anyone who doesn’t have themselves vaccinated because they’ve been listening to anti-vaccination politicians or quacks could easily die. And then the responsibility lies with those who spoke out against vaccination. So I understand someone who doesn’t have themselves vaccinated or has doubts, but I think it’s gross irresponsibility to dissuade others from getting vaccinated.

Since you’ve mentioned politicians, or mentioned the anti-vaccination campaign, on social media one can also see that those who have previously campaigned against the vaccination are also being vaccinated. What’s more, they’re being vaccinated with a vaccine that they’ve been campaigning against. So doesn’t this mean that the anti-vaccination campaign will soon end? This is a naive question.

Well, we’re fallible, we’re all human, so now I don’t want to judge anyone and definitely don’t want to condemn them. I just ask everyone to let doctors and nurses do their jobs; I ask them not to mislead people with staged videos and fake news, but rather to relate to one another with benevolence and goodwill, and to let those who want to be vaccinated register and go and get vaccinated. So I’m not speaking out against people who don’t trust the vaccines; I understand that there are people like that, but that’s their own personal decision. But they should leave other people alone and let them make their own personal decisions, and let’s see if this way we can save their lives, or save people from serious illness.

In addition, the risks associated with the disease are far, far greater than those associated with vaccination. Last Friday you said that there are enough beds and enough ventilators. Meanwhile, several institutions have complained that they’re almost reaching the limit of their capacity, and that beds and ventilators are not in themselves intensive care. And they feel that soon they won’t be able to care for patients at the level of professionalism that, say, a person would want for their own father – if their father was hospitalized.

First, let’s salute our hospital doctors, nurses and general practitioners. They’re doing superhuman work, especially in hospitals. Over the weekend of 15 March, I had two meetings with all the county-level hospital directors in the country. I saw that they’re decent, determined people, who are well-prepared and who are devoting themselves to their work 100 per cent. So I think that not a single death can be laid at the door of our doctors, nurses and hospital directors, because they’re putting their hearts and souls into their work – on weekdays, weekends and holidays, whenever necessary. And I’ve also seen that since we declared a pandemic, a state of danger in hospitals, our doctors and medical leaders have had the appropriate freedom to reorganise hospital care. And I see that there will be enough people – even though the effort being made is huge. Now we’ve brought in medical students in their final year, and also residents. So secondment and temporary transfer is the method with which we can resolve this situation. I think that our hospitals will continue to operate, although – I repeat – this will be through superhuman effort. The Hungarian healthcare system is in a much better condition – especially in terms of human resources – than many might have previously thought. Incidentally, half of the beds separately designated for coronavirus use are still free, and we have about twice as many ventilators with beds which are ready for use than those currently in use. So the technical care issue has also been resolved. But there’s no substitute for our doctors and nurses. And we should probably also thank the people who trained them in universities and vocational schools, because from the current performance it’s clear that their teachers also did a fine job.

In his book “The Plague”, Camus writes that if one sleeps for only four hours, one is not emotional and sees things for what they really are. Well, that’s absolutely true for healthcare workers right now. Are there any reserves left?

I also sleep for four hours and I’m not…

…and not emotional.

And I’m not without emotion. That’s what I wanted to say. So there’s still room for one’s feelings. But obviously it’s difficult. So thanks, gratitude, recognition and support: I ask everyone to give all their support to doctors and nurses. I repeat: let’s not make their work more difficult with scaremongering. Now is not the time, for example, to go into hospitals and make staged videos or spread fake news, and so on. Don’t hinder the work of people who really don’t often sleep for more than four hours anyway. So kindness, goodwill, help.

Intensive care units are filling up with COVID patients. But other patients may also need intensive care. There may have been less spoken about them lately.

This is good news, because it means there’s probably less trouble there. Allocating beds for COVID and non-COVID use is a specialist medical question, and healthcare professionals have a free hand in this regard. We accept their medical decisions. And I see that no one has had to be removed from important care. So I feel that the healthcare system is able to deal with the dual pressure of simultaneously caring for people infected with COVID and caring for our most seriously ill non-COVID patients.

The vaccination of teachers will also start tomorrow. They’re being vaccinated with Pfizer and Moderna, aren’t they? If the schools open on 19 April, calculations suggest that they’ll have had their first vaccinations by then. Will this provide them with enough protection? Or could this date be further postponed?

Well, I went in to work immediately after my first vaccination. The first vaccination gives protection. Of course it would be more comfortable to wait for the second one, after heaven knows exactly how many days. There’s also a medical debate about this. But what we know for sure is that the first vaccination already gives very high protection. I understand that everyone wants to get the first dose as soon as possible, then the second one, and then wait even longer. And obviously many teachers think so too. But I ask them to be considerate and also to take into account the interests of parents who have to stay home even though they should work, and have nowhere to take their children. They have to live somehow. So we’ve complied with the unions’ request to bring teachers forward in the order of vaccination. We’ve done this, and I see that they’ll get their first vaccination a good week before the schools reopen. I think that this will let them take on the task of teaching. I understand if someone doesn’t accept this, but there’s no need to agitate against the reopening of schools, because the interests of both children and parents must be taken into account. And it’s in their interest to be able to start school as soon as possible in a suitable, safe environment.

A new phrase has been minted: “vaccine envy”. Surely everyone’s heard about the neighbour who’s been vaccinated, even though she’s younger than her neighbour who hasn’t been. Or the colleague who’s already been vaccinated, even though others have more chronic illnesses. Why is this?

This is because we decided – after much debate – that people should receive their vaccinations through the system of general practitioners. There are countries that are trying to carry out their vaccination programmes by only having vaccination points in hospitals. On the specific advice of epidemiologists, however, we took the deliberate decision to prioritise the involvement of general practitioners. When it comes to vaccination, there are many smaller, personal considerations to be taken account of, influencing who should receive it where and in what order. General practitioners have the information needed for this. We set the general ground rules, but give general practitioners powers to make such distinctions based on their personal knowledge of patients. They undertake this responsibility. This not only involves bringing people forward in the list, but perhaps also not bringing certain people forward. So this decision-making process that general practitioners must employ involves a great deal of responsibility. And they are the ones who know their patients. There are people who are told that vaccination isn’t even recommended for them, and others who are told that they have an illness that justifies them being given priority. I trust general practitioners, and I think we do well to trust them to be able to make these decisions. This can lead to situations that other people feel are unfair; but here, too, I ask everyone to be charitable to our doctors, assume their good intentions, and that their decisions are indeed based on medical considerations.

Trust is surely key in this epidemic. I have to admit that I was shocked to hear that expectant mothers were lying in intensive care units or on ventilators. A decision on this wasn’t long in coming, and now they’re also being vaccinated. How does this stand now?

For a long time the working hypothesis was that we shouldn’t vaccinate expectant mothers. Then, somehow, a scientific and epidemiological consensus emerged across Europe that pregnant women should be vaccinated – with some vaccines, at least. And then Hungarian doctors also took this position and advised the Operational Group to place expectant mothers among prioritised groups. This is why we’re vaccinating them now. There are 42,000 expectant mothers who are in a stage of pregnancy when they can receive the vaccine. I think everyone agrees with this, because if there’s a problem it could endanger not just one life but two. I think that there’s complete general support for the idea that if pregnant women can be vaccinated, we should give them priority.

Austria is also ordering the Russian vaccine. It seems that the example of procurement from the East is gaining ground. What’s more, even the German press is speaking positively about it. This isn’t an everyday occurrence.

Like a white raven…

Like a white raven. Did you expect this reaction to the Hungarian strategy?

I’ll try to speak modestly, but I can’t play it down any more than to say that I was completely sure of it. So sometime around November it could already be seen that the vaccines ordered from the West wouldn’t arrive on time. The European Commission ordered the vaccines and it also signed the contracts, but it bungled something. And suddenly I, too, saw that Britain, the United States, Israel and Serbia were – and would be – ahead of Europe in vaccination. Under their own emergency regulations every EU Member State has the right to order vaccines independently from the rest of the world; and once we had the right to do so, that was the decision that had to be made – even though almost no one in Europe did so, apart from us. Perhaps the poor Slovaks committed to it, but the resulting disputes cost the Prime Minister his job. We took that risk, but I’m still here. I think that the Hungarian people support the notion that ideology should be set aside, that no distinction should be made between vaccines on the basis of whether they come from the West or the East, but the criterion should be whether a vaccine is safe and appropriate. If it’s safe and effective it should be made available to people, regardless of where it’s manufactured. Making a vaccine a political or ideological issue is idiocy. But perhaps I ought to use a stronger word, because it could cost human lives. If we hadn’t ordered Chinese and Russian vaccines – which were initially met with strong opposition in the West, but which they now want – we would be where the West is now: we’d have only vaccinated about half the number of people that we’ve been able to vaccinate so far. So I think that we made a good decision. It wasn’t a risk-free decision. You may have seen the attacks and contemptible accusations we had to endure in the international media. But I think we made a good decision, and we’ve saved the lives of many thousands of people in Hungary; and we will save them because we have vaccines – not only from the West, but also from the East.

The German press is now reassuring people by saying that after Easter vaccination in Europe will really start, and that mass vaccination is really starting in Germany. Do they know something, and will this affect us also?

This is how we were in November, when everyone was full of hope, and then Brussels bungled it, and the mistake had to be corrected. Some succeeded like us, while others didn’t. I have this handy chart. I don’t want to bore your viewers, but this is what I work from. This shows a weekly breakdown of when and how many vaccines should arrive in the country. To date the amount of vaccine is for 2,011,029 people, I can tell you that by April 4 it will be for 2.356 million, and that in early May it will be for 4.121 million. These numbers aren’t only for Eastern vaccines, but also for Western ones. The Germans could be right. According to my expectations and documents, a larger amount of vaccine should arrive from the West in April, and then by the end of May or the beginning of June we’ll be able to get to 7 million doses, the number of doses needed for the first vaccination. In early May we’ll have more vaccines than the number of people registered. So there seems to be some basis to my hope that sometime in late April or early May everyone who has registered will be able to receive their first vaccination. Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate!

Meanwhile, however, last week you spoke to representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, and on social media you posted that they’re fighters, they want to reopen, and that they’re right. Epidemiologists, on the other hand, would prefer to lock down on health grounds. How can these two positions be reconciled, informed by the experience of the first two waves?

They can’t: these are two mutually exclusive positions. As they get closer they’ll change, and this change will be brought about by vaccination. Because as the number of people who have been vaccinated grows, there will be fewer and fewer patients and fewer and fewer people will be dying. We’re not there yet, and the numbers aren’t looking good. Today’s numbers didn’t look good either: the number of people in hospital is over 10,000, and the number on ventilators is over 1,500. So vaccination still hasn’t broken the back of the pandemic, it hasn’t yet been able to stop and kill the virus. But as the number of people who have been vaccinated grows, this is what will happen. And as infection rates improve and vaccination rates increase, there will be increasing consensus in Hungary on when and how to take the next step in the relaunch. We held a national consultation in which around 600,000 people gave us their opinions. We know exactly what they think. The country needs to be reopened in stages: schools need to be reopened first, secondly hotel and restaurant workers need to be given jobs, and the next steps can follow on. So we’ve canvassed the will of the public, there’s a set amount of vaccine, there are doctors, a vaccination plan and infection numbers. If we add all these up, I think that the first step – 2.5 million vaccinations – will be sometime after Easter. We can open the schools, and we can open the shops with a new kind of safety system: with one customer for every ten square metres. And then the next steps can come – the third and the fourth. I don’t want to talk about these now, because the contrast between the number of vaccines available and the high number of daily infections is still too stark. But as the number of vaccines grows it will change the number of infections, it will change our mood, our relationship to the whole problem, and we can talk more and more rationally and meaningfully about the next step in the relaunch. I will always inform the public one week ahead of the next step in the relaunch decided on by the Operational Group.

Meanwhile the economy is also being relaunched, as just this morning you came home from Uzbekistan, where there were also economic negotiations. Earlier you said that you will create as many jobs as are destroyed by the pandemic. Looking at today’s unemployment and other economic numbers and indicators, can you deliver on this promise?

The data for February this year is now available, and the facts show that, compared with the data for February last year, there are a hundred thousand fewer people in employment than there were a year ago. So if we want to keep our commitment to create as many jobs as the virus destroys, we need to create at least a hundred thousand jobs. This will succeed. I maintain this promise, and so does the Government. We shall create a new job to replace every one which is lost. Indeed I hope that after the pandemic there will be an economic recovery that will create more jobs than the virus has taken from us.

Speaking of the anti-vaccination campaign, in a TV show yesterday a left-wing analyst said that the Opposition should make better use of bereaved Hungarians, because he estimated that this could be about 200,000 potential voters for the opposition parties. What can one say about this?

So far the Left has been brutally anti-vaccination, and it remains so now. But I trust that they’re also human, they have mothers, they have hearts; and I don’t think that even on the Left such opinions will be allowed to prevail.

In Budapest on Thursday you’ll receive Matteo Salvini and Mateusz Morawiecki. So far we’ve talked about the pandemic, but this shows that life goes on. Only last week Mr. Salvini said in several interviews that the time has not yet come for this, but it will come – the time for a meeting. Why did it become important and necessary to have this meeting tomorrow?

The end of the relationship between Fidesz and the European People’s Party has created a clear situation in Europe. It is now clear that there are very many voters, many people in Europe who are not represented, who are not sufficiently represented in European politics. There are many of us who do not want migration, for whom the traditional family is important, who do not want multiculturalism, who want to protect our nations, who want to maintain our national identities, and who do not want to live in a Brusselocentric European empire, but want to continue our lives within the customary national framework. So there are many tens of millions – or perhaps hundreds of millions – of us in Europe who think like this. And today these parties and voters don’t have representation – or at most that representation is fragmentary. Tomorrow we will try to remedy this, when we receive the Prime Minister of Poland and the man who I hope will be a future Prime Minister of Italy. We will launch a platform, an organization, a process, that will provide sufficiently robust representation in Europe for citizens who believe and trust in traditional European values.

And finally returning to the pandemic, perhaps now many people dare to look further into the future and ask what kind of summer we’ll have, how this relaunch will succeed and when we can get back to our old lives. And we’re coming up to Easter, with the Christian world celebrating the resurrection. What can give us hope in this difficult situation?

The resurrection is victory, and now we are at the gates of a victory. I think we’re going to have two or three more difficult weeks; but after that the doubting, uncertain voices will fade ever more into the background, we’ll put ever more energy into actually relaunching the country, and our summer will be beautiful, sunny and fun. Now, however, our hearts are still with those who have lost their relatives, co-workers, and any of their loved ones. We pray for them and wish much strength for those families that have suffered loss. In the meantime we’re preparing and relaunching our communities in order to regain our cheerful, happy and hopeful lives – something which, believe me, is almost within touching distance. I see the data, I see the numbers, I see the capacity of the country, the doctors, the hospitals. Believe me, we’ll take two or three more steps and finally we’ll win, and regain our old lives. It won’t be immediately, as it was when the virus took it from us; but we’ll find our way back there to the truly optimistic period when the pandemic interrupted our lives. Think back to February 2020, say, when the pandemic had not yet appeared on the horizon. Think back to what hopeful plans we were making for the year ahead – be they in the economy, for demographic data, or for data on families. So everything – all data and information – was overflowing with optimism and vitality. That’s where we need to return to; even though it will not be in a single step, I am convinced that it will surely be by the end of the summer.

Thank you very much.