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

Katalin Nagy: the Ministry of Interior’s Operational Group began its work early again today. The Prime Minister also started his day there. I welcome Viktor Orbán to the studio. What is the most important new information today?

Good morning. The Operational Group meets every day at 6 a.m. That’s where we start work. We finish every day in the evening, usually by listening to the reports from the action groups. This has a slightly military feel about it, but luckily we were soldiers, so we’ve been able to adapt to this way of working. At 6 a.m. the latest data was that we have 85 people confirmed as having been infected, with 6 of them in a serious condition. Seven of these have recovered, but there has been one death. In international comparison, this shows that we are still in the phase of local community transmission, so we have not entered the period of mass infection. Everyone, including professors of medicine, say that this is likely to happen: the transition to a large-scale increase in infection is unavoidable. But it is possible to slow it down. And the reason we need to slow down the processes is so that the healthcare system can deal with serious cases. For the time being, however, the doctors are giving us few points of certainty. My first experience has been that there are many doctors in Hungary. I meet such action groups, and we have healthcare mathematicians, virologists and doctors engaged in research. It is very invigorating that in a country of ten million so many fine brains are available and living here, and that the professions are producing world-class individuals. So talking to them I see that the reason for their caution is that the number of cases they’ve been able to directly study is still not enough: the number of tests in clinical laboratory conditions stands at over three thousand. There are tests, quick tests, of a kind which have a reliability of 60 to 80 per cent. But only clinically proven tests in accredited laboratories can lead to medical conclusions on the treatment of patients. We have conducted about three thousand of these, but doctors will need to see more cases before they can dare to make firm statements about the situation. All they can venture to say at the moment is that this is probable, or this is the case to the best of our knowledge. And that doesn’t give me enough hard evidence to enable me to speak clearly about the consequences for particular age groups, occupational groups, or groups with a particular health status. I think that this is the factor causing the greatest uncertainty. People don’t know what will happen to them if they get this infection. They must be told, but at the moment all we can talk about are probabilities. I expect that next week my medical team working on this kind of patient care will be able to tell you and your children clearly and understandably more or less what can be expected in the event of infection. And then, even though the epidemic will not have subsided, I think there will be less fear.

How do the members of the Operational Group or doctors assess the impact of the measures, of the strict measures? Are they appropriate and sufficient?

Well, doctors are modest people, and perhaps that’s for the best. So no one here is blowing their own trumpet. I see that we made the right decision when we accepted the advice of epidemiologists, and enacted these measures in the early stages of the epidemic. Therefore these measures are preventive, and the spread of infection is slower. But every expert dealing with mathematical modelling – and I have a group of such people – agrees that while we can slow down the spread of the virus, in the end the number of illnesses will more or less even out across the whole of Europe. What does this mean? This means that the real problem, the dramatic situation, may arise as it has done in Italy, as a result of a rapid rise in the number of infections, with a large number of people within a large population needing intensive medical care, and without enough intensive beds, ventilators and so on to accommodate them. They say that the healthcare system [in Italy] is collapsing. There are two ways of protecting against this. Firstly one increases capacity, in terms of both human resources and equipment. Therefore we are continuously buying, procuring, and so forth: building up stores and preparing for a mass infection. So one way is to increase the equipment needed for the provision of health care. The other is to slow down the number of people needing intensive care. We are doing both things at once.

Is procurement possible? Because we’ve been reading that the Italians say that neither the European Union, Germany, nor the strong country of France has helped Italy. So the delivery of orders that have already been paid for has been stopped. And we know that in Hungary, for example, there aren’t enough masks or protective gear. Doctors are also reporting this.

But there are enough. That statement doesn’t correspond to reality: we have millions of masks, and we’re making them; in prisons, for example, inmates are working flat out. We’re also sourcing the basic materials from which we can make masks. There are various types of masks, and we’re buying every type. I’d rather not talk about the various intriguing details related to procurement, but the point is that we’re getting every item of equipment from every source. There’s no doubt that it’s not easy, especially as the borders are closed. So basically by air. But we’re not begging, we’re not going to the EU for them to give us anything or help, or anything like that, because that doesn’t work; we’re taking care of things ourselves. So I’ve sent out all the emissaries I’ve been able to, and we’ve reactivated our entire system of international contacts. We have our people at airports from Beijing to Shanghai. Payments have been made, and the public procurement rules have been amended appropriately. So today we are acquiring all manner of things through a huge network, an extensive network, extending our feelers in all directions. It’s not true that there’s not enough equipment. There is enough of all types of equipment to cope with the current level of infection. But as we’re preparing for an intensification we need to buy more now than is needed at the moment, so that everyone will have sufficient access to the equipment when the epidemic becomes widespread. There is an order of supply laid down by the Operational Group: we must first give masks and necessary equipment to healthcare workers, then to people working in the maintenance of public order, then to those working in public administration. So we’re not only collecting equipment for storage; but when the epidemic reaches the mass transfer stage, there’s a clear order of distribution for who receives it. But there is enough of everything. Yesterday I spoke with the Minister of Finance, and I reviewed the figures on how much we’ve spent so far and how much we will spend. The Minister of Finance is continuing to work with an unlimited budget. The tens of billions needed for defence against the virus are continuously available, and acquisitions are continuous.

Is there enough capacity in the healthcare system? Hospitals have been designated – is everything working there?

Well, what is needed? First of all, there’s a need for people working in the care system. Here we should thank our doctors and nurses – and medical students, who have volunteered for service. But since the introduction of emergency provisions in Hungary we can now arrange something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. For instance, we have ordered medical students to join the ranks of healthcare workers. They didn’t need much encouragement, because they were already enrolling voluntarily. So as a result we’ve increased the number of people working in health care. Despite all the containment measures, we must prepare for some of them being infected: those people will withdraw from the front line, and others will have to be take their places. This is a military plan of action in which we’re working with the modelling of events in real time. We know how many patients there are at any one time, how many people will be required to attend to them, and how many of the latter will be infected. In China 4 per cent of doctors were infected, and in Italy 10 per cent. When they drop out we know who will replace them. So this is a true military plan of action. Here we’re talking about a collective defence system. I declared a “state of danger” because under normal circumstances the measures necessary for the defence effort could only have been enacted after a great many debates over the course of several months. The state of danger gives us the power to enact these measures rapidly and without debate. This is day nine since the declaration of the state of danger, and I can tell you that we have mounted a collective defence for the containment of the virus, and Hungarian society has launched and demonstrated emergency reactions. As a result, today the community of Hungarians is a community in a state of defence. Those who are outside the community because they’re in distress somewhere will be taken care of by Minister Szijjártó and his team so that they can return home. We are keeping our borders under full surveillance; they are closed, and only the humanitarian corridors are operational. We have enough soldiers and police officers, and we’ve also mobilised officer cadets. I’ve assigned military units to critically important companies, so that we have soldiers and police officers standing by should there be a need to supervise or take control of those companies. We have completed an allocation plan for doctors, and we have designated disease control hospitals. We know where to take patients needing intensive care first when their numbers start to rise, and if that hospital is full, we know where to take them next. We are building a disease control hospital, and so on. So we have a true military plan for the defence effort. I can tell you that the country is mobilised according to the logic of defence: the pieces on the chessboard are arranged so that we can defend the country and the health of the Hungarian people. Indeed, we’ve even gone beyond this, because when we finished our defence preparations we also started assessing and forecasting the ensuing economic consequences – and we’ve even enacted the first economic measures. This is the second phase of preparedness.

Now that you’ve mentioned economic measures, a Romanian newspaper described the announcement you made on Wednesday as Europe’s boldest step.

One has to be careful when one is praised in a Romanian newspaper.

So do you think that these measures will be sufficient? Players in the sectors concerned welcome them wholeheartedly, but experts say that they won’t necessarily be enough, and that further measures might be needed.

That is absolutely certain. When warding off economic consequences it’s very important that we adopt a good starting point. We need to clearly define what the goal is. At this point, the goal is for the fewest people possible to drop out of work, and that those who for some reason are unable to work now should be able to return to work as soon as possible. This is the most important thing, because if there is work there is everything. If there is no work, there is nothing. If one has no work, one can pay the bills with borrowed money, but that quickly leads to financial ruin. So it’s very important to keep the country working. We must maintain that ability. Naturally this isn’t possible in every circumstance, because parents have to stay at home with their children, and those without work right now in restaurants and hotels will lose their jobs. So this isn’t easy. But we can help those who have lost their jobs or who have dropped out of work to survive this situation, and at the end of it to return to work as quickly as possible. We are also trying to help businesses avoid laying off people, by amending terms and conditions in agreement with their staff, or retaining their workforce for as long as they can. If they make them redundant, it will be harder to rebuild later. So the goal of our economic measures is to ensure that work opportunities are not lost, and to protect jobs so that everyone can do the work – mainly at home, in their families – which is needed to manage the crisis, to manage the epidemic. So I thought that the best measures take the example of everyday life as their starting point – and it seems to me that the Romanians share this view. What are people afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their jobs, or having to stay at home while their debt repayment obligations mount up. Debts are secured against something, and sooner or later that will be repossessed. Debts accumulate, interest must be paid on defaulted payments, and then compound interest. In the end you feel – just as people did during the foreign currency debt crisis – that you’re under water, and you’re financially ruined. This is what people are afraid of. Therefore the first measure I enacted was the suspension – right up until the end of the year – of obligations for the payment of interest and the principal related to existing loans. So if they’re unable to pay now, people need not worry that their lives will be ruined and everything they have built up and accumulated over the past ten years will be reduced to zero. They need not worry, because their homes or cars cannot be repossessed. They need not worry about their continued financial security. This is an enormous amount. It seems easy to say that people won’t be required to pay the principal or interest on their debt, but in Hungary businesses’ and private individuals’ interest and debt repayments to banks amount to around 3,600 billion forints every year. We’ve introduced this measure now in mid-March, so two and a half months have already gone by; but the amount of money that people will save is still enormous. And that’s as it should be. This is the first measure. The second is the identification of sensitive sectors. I have given Minister Andrea Mager the task of consulting with economic players, and conducting talks with representatives of all employment sectors. I’ve asked leaders of the representations of employment sectors to communicate with the Government, to bring us their numbers and evidence on the extent of the danger to their sectors to date and in the future, so that we can prescribe the necessary remedy. As a result of these consultations – there have been hundreds of them, and the Chamber of Commerce has been of great help – we have identified the sectors which have immediately found themselves in great trouble. We have identified them, from taxi drivers through restaurants to hotels, and have lowered their contribution payment obligations. We have also ordered the introduction of preferential terms for new loans. So we’ve provided immediate relief for the sectors in trouble. We will take further steps to assist these sectors, and further sectors could be added to the list – depending on the arguments, figures and reports submitted to the Minister, and the matters on which we can agree with them. We would like to conclude agreements with everyone.

Are the banks partners in this?

The truth is that I haven’t asked them; but judging by their reactions I think that they are.

Because it can ensure survival if the general public is relieved of an enormous burden such as the sum you’ve just mentioned. What measures can be expected if the infection, if the epidemic, progresses to the phase of mass transmission?

The most important thing is that by that point the medical task force focusing on the disease’s progression communicates with the public as frequently as possible, and tells them what will happen next, so that – and I repeat – you know what will happen to you in the days ahead if you contract this virus tomorrow: what the disease entails, and what symptoms you might have to face. Because our problem is that there is no vaccine. There is, however, a task force of virology experts working on the possible adaptation of medicines already on the market for the treatment of other diseases. This is in the hope that we might find an appropriate medicine before we have developed a completely new vaccine. So there’s a task force engaged in drug modification, and of course there’s original research on finding a vaccine for the virus. We have brilliant researchers. I’ve personally met the heads – or heads of department – of Hungarian universities. I’ve learnt that in Hungary there are major internationally recognised research projects in progress, and one cannot rule out the possibility that they’ll arrive at some sort of result. I’m not saying that they’ll discover the vaccine, but they could manage to modify drugs already on the market which might at least minimise the symptoms caused by the coronavirus. That hope exists. We’ll see what can be brought about by good luck and the genius of the researchers. Anyway, should the situation worsen, the most important thing is being able to provide reliable information on development of the disease, based on the processing of Hungarian data, and relying on facts in Hungary. The second thing is that we know that if the number of infections increases, so will the number of those needing intensive care. So there will be people who won’t be able to wait at home for their symptoms to pass – although the majority will be able to. A great many people will need medical care, or, to be more precise, hospital care – indeed intensive care. They will have to be taken to hospital, hospital beds must be provided for them, and intensive care provision will have to be created, which will include the provision of ventilators. As we speak, these capacities are being expanded. What we can say based on the information currently at our disposal is that most people needing intensive care will be from among our elderly compatriots. We have good reason to address them and talk about them separately, because we know that when the disease becomes more widespread they will form the majority of patients needing intensive care. This doesn’t mean that no young people are at risk, because young people and children with immunodeficiency disorders could also be seriously affected by this virus. They don’t form a very large percentage of the Hungarian population, but all the same very many children and families could be affected. At the same time, it’s also clear that infected children who do not have immunodeficiency disorders do not develop symptoms requiring intensive care. This is why parents who aren’t able to arrange for their children’s supervision can send them to school: schools are still open for the supervision of children, and school principals must arrange for the supervision of children in small groups, with little or no risk of infection. There they will be supervised, cared for, and even taught. So parents who are unable to stay at home with their children should not worry: designated nursery schools and all elementary schools will be able to accept their children for supervision. Every parent will try to stay at home with their children; but this can’t go on indefinitely, so I expect to see a rise in the number of women who want to take their children to schools for supervision. And school principals have been prepared for this. They’re doing this job. There is a separate educational task force, which is overseeing the digital educational system, which is a fine job that appears to have been successful so far, despite some initial glitches. This task force has also been charged with ensuring that parents are able to take their children to educational institutions for supervision.

The other very big problem – and this is something that I can vouch for personally – is grandparents. My mother is over 80, but as she’s still very active she finds it very hard to understand why she shouldn’t go anywhere. This is what everyone is complaining about: you can’t convince older people, because they say that they’ve been through so much, and to them this seems like nothing…

This isn’t an easy situation for us. My mother will also turn 80 this year, and my grandmother is 99. So I know what this situation is like. I understand them, because, as they say, “Let’s not get things back to front, with youngsters giving advice to the elderly”. The world’s natural order is the other way round: those who are more experienced can give advice to the less experienced, meaning that our elders can give advice to us. This is the natural order of the world. But perhaps in this instance grandparents ought to yield to us a little. They should believe us when we say that we’re worried about them. We’re not worried that seniors will infect others, and so we’re not suggesting that for us they’re a burden or a threat. I myself reject that idea. The reason is that if the epidemic enters the stage of mass transmission, then they will be the ones who are worst affected, and we are worried about them. This is why we’re giving them advice, or passing our observations on to them. At the same time, I believe it wouldn’t be right for us younger people to start imposing statutory regulations on senior citizens; perhaps it would be legally possible, though even that is questionable. We may get to the stage at which, in their best interests, that has to happen. I’d like to avoid giving orders to older people, but perhaps it is permitted to ask them, to appeal to them. Let me repeat: I’m asking elderly people, including my own family members, to stay at home if they can – and even if they can’t. We will take care of them: in this state of danger local governments have been instructed to do everything possible for seniors; they’ve been instructed to take care of the needs of older people staying at home. Local governments will look after older people staying at home who have no family members to help them: they’ll provide for their shopping and meals, they’ll check on them so that they are not left at home helpless if they have health problems not caused by the virus – something that can happen to those in their later years. So local governments have contacted senior citizens, and we’re able to care for them while they are in their homes.

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