Katalin Nagy: For nearly a year we’ve been starting every day by looking at the numbers: how many new coronavirus infections there are and how many people are in hospital. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio, who has again started his day’s work at the Operational Group. What are today’s numbers?
Good morning to your listeners. Good morning. We’re counting in waves: there was the first wave, and now we’re in the second wave – within which today is the 94th day, according to our timeline. So we’re on the rack. Indeed, the Operational Group meeting started at six a.m., and the good news from them is that 310,448 of our people, our citizens, our compatriots, have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, and we also have 383,000 people who have been confirmed as having recovered from the disease. So in Hungary today around 700,000 people have immunity. The bad news is that the number of new infections – which for a while was on a promising downward trend – stopped falling, then began to level off, and is now rising again. This morning’s figures show that we’ve recorded 1,860 new cases, and we’ve lost 99 fellow Hungarians. There are 3,828 patients in hospitals dealing with COVID infection, including 299 requiring assisted ventilation. We must continue to observe the rules. I ask everyone to do so, because while a week or two ago we felt that we were putting the pandemic behind us, in Hungary – and also across the whole of Europe – over the past few days the favourable trends have reversed. Naturally there are also healthcare experts in the Operational Group; and in it we also have the Minister himself, Professor Kásler, whom I asked to explain why the improvement in Hungary’s numbers had come to a halt, and why the trend is deteriorating now. There’s no definitive answer to this question, and our experts can only make assumptions. They believe that in Hungary the British variant of the virus could be strengthening. I hope that in a week or two we’ll be on firmer scientific ground.
In neighbouring countries, in Slovakia – and also in the Czech Republic – the daily number of new infections has increased dramatically. They’re introducing further restrictions. Should we be worried about this if we observe the rules that we’ve been observing since 11 November?
We need to look at two curves, which I’ve also asked mathematicians to carefully analyse. Crisis management in Hungary is based on two bodies of knowledge. There’s medical science, with doctors performing examinations, tests and analyses, while mathematicians draw curves. And there’s another body of experience or popular knowledge. This is what the people experience, what they want, which restrictions they accept, which restrictions they’re unable to accept, what’s intolerable for them, and so on. These two must be combined into a political decision. As far as I can see, there’s no need for further restrictions – in fact I’d be positively against them. We now have enough vaccines for a well-organised vaccination campaign – with the arrival of British vaccines, for example – to at least counteract the natural deterioration of the situation. The two effects – one negative and one positive – can cancel each other out, and if we vaccinate people rapidly and procure even more vaccines, the positive effect can overcome the negative effect. The immunity that results from vaccination will be able to curb further spread of the pandemic. So now we must monitor these two trends simultaneously: the number of people vaccinated and the number of new infections. The situation is improving, and now I can also work with vaccination charts, one of which I have in front of me now; the listeners can’t see it, but I’m talking about a vaccination chart that I received at today’s meeting of the Operational Group. As regards the data, I can tell your listeners that if we also start using Chinese vaccines – a situation which isn’t too far off now – then by Easter we’ll be able to vaccinate everyone who has registered so far.
That’s more than two million people.
According to the data this will be 2,448,300 people; and at the end of May or beginning of June this number will be around 6.8 million. By European comparison, this means that here in Hungary by the end of May we’ll be able to vaccinate 3.5 million more people than another country of the same size and population as Hungary which had European vaccination plans in line with the situation in Europe generally. I think that this is magnificent.
This is because the Hungarian government started negotiations with manufacturers. In addition to those we already know about, are there further negotiations with other manufacturers, or is there no further need?
There’s always a need. We don’t even know for how long the immunity given by vaccines will last. At present manufacturers are cautiously talking about six months, but we’ve been looking at scientific statements and analyses published around the world, and as far as I can see experts agree that the period is longer than six months, rather than shorter. But we must prepare for the possibility, after six, seven or eight months, of having to revaccinate people who have already received vaccinations. Therefore vaccine procurement must be continuous. I know that the Opposition keep making jokes about this, but we must continue to mobilise our scouts. They’ve been sent out around the world; and wherever a few thousand or hundred thousand vaccines seem to be ready to fall off a truck, a Hungarian scout must be standing by to catch them.
Is this why the Government has reserved enough vaccine for more than ten million people? On the koronavirus.gov.hu website, one reads about 19.5 million doses of Western vaccine, enough for the inoculation of around 9.5 million Hungarians; and one reads about a further 2.5 million doses of Chinese and Russian vaccine, which will be enough for 1 million people. Is this why it’s necessary to reserve more than ten million doses? Reserving vaccines doesn’t mean that we’ve actually ordered them, does it?
This means that we can decide whether or not to purchase them when they become available. This is a good arrangement. The problem with the European Union isn’t that they’ve struck a bad deal on vaccines from a business point of view. We shouldn’t criticise the Commission on that score: they struck good business deals at very good prices, we only pay when we have to, and so on. The problem is time. What matters isn’t the number of vaccines; what matters is when we get the vaccines. This is where the weakness of the Commission and the entire European procurement system comes into focus, as the Canadians, the British and the Israelis are much further ahead with vaccination, having had access to vaccines much sooner. And those who gain time gain lives. This is why we also needed the Chinese and Russian vaccines; because while in absolute numbers the Western vaccines would be enough [for mass immunity] sometime in June, July or September, up until then a hundred people could be dying every day. We can’t treat this lightly, and we can’t wait. This is why we must procure vaccines from every possible source, in order to gain time. Let me repeat: whoever gains time gains lives. Those who lose time lose lives.
Vaccination with the Sputnik vaccine is beginning this week. When will the Chinese vaccine arrive?
We already have the vials needed for testing. At the Operational Group meeting this morning I tried to get a clearer picture of the tests that are needed. In this regard I always say that there’s a temptation which politicians must resist: one reads a lot about epidemiological matters, and after a while one starts talking about them as if one were an expert on them. But the Prime Minister isn’t an expert on epidemiological matters. At best he’s better-informed than the average Hungarian citizen; but that doesn’t make him an expert on epidemiology. Doctors are experts on epidemiology. We must keep asking them questions. Rather than telling them things, we must ask them questions. This is also what happened this morning. I got a clear picture of how many tests the National Centre for Public Health must carry out on the Chinese vaccines before releasing them to doctors for vaccination. So far we’ve issued an emergency licence for the Chinese vaccine to be imported and in principle to be used, but this isn’t enough. Each delivery must be tested in accordance with a set of Hungarian safety criteria, and when it arrives in the country it must undergo a certain number of tests in order to determine whether it can be used, whether it can be administered to people. As far as I see, we’re making progress. These tests are now under way, and there’s a good chance that we’ll also be able to safely approve the release of the Chinese supplies. We’ve already released the Russian vaccines, which are now available for vaccination. And we’re using them.
Many people say that we should wait for the European Medicines Agency to also put its seal on that piece of paper. Many people forget, however, that the European Medicines Agency does exactly the same as the National Institute for Pharmacology: they don’t check or test the vials, but only inspect the documentation.
If you’ll allow me, I’d look at this question from a broader perspective. Why do we think that the Europeans are smarter than we are? This isn’t a fact, it’s only a hypothesis. Our experts are at least as good as any European experts. I have no more faith in the tests run by the Brussels centre for public health than I have in their Hungarian counterpart. In fact, the reverse is true: I trust the Hungarian one more than its counterpart in Brussels. There’s no reason for us to have such a national inferiority complex, thinking that everything happening in Brussels is completely reliable, while what’s said in Pest may or may not be true. This isn’t the case. Our experts are of world-class standing. This is the first thing. If Hungarian experts say something, it is sufficient reassurance for me: I don’t need approval or confirmation of it from America, Britain or Brussels. This is a negative notion that was built into our heads, and we accepted it. No, we must believe in ourselves. We must have faith in [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller, in her colleagues, and in Hungarian professors. And I think that so far this has proved to be correct. This is the first thing. The second thing is that naturally we can argue that we should wait for this and that. But with each day spent waiting we lose a hundred Hungarian lives. So I’m not going to wait.
The online consultation will start next week. Do you already have the questions? Do we know how many questions there will be?
I’d like to finalise the questions today. There will be five or six of them; I don’t want too many. We’ll see. If you’ll allow me, I’d rather not say any more about that. But I hope that the consultation will be successful. On this occasion we don’t have time to send out letters, so it will be conducted on the same website on which people can register [for vaccination]. The number of people registering for vaccination is also increasing continuously, and I have the latest number: as of this morning, 2,010,236 people have registered. The consultation will be conducted on the same website. Everyone who has an opinion or suggestions should participate, and everyone who wants their voice heard should visit the consultation platform. At the same time, going back to that question of vaccinations, they are making good progress. Initially there were some minor technical difficulties, but these aren’t significant, they’re decreasing. At each vaccination point six people are invited for every half-hour time slot, so there’s no reason to worry about overcrowding. We can proceed according to plan if everyone arrives on time. In Hungary today 7,189 vaccination points are in operation.
The Government is introducing a document certifying immunity. What is the model for this, and what can it be used for?
It’s homegrown, if I can put it like that. Everyone has spoken about this, about a possible certificate for crossing borders, and so on. In some countries there have even been deep philosophical debates about the rights and wrongs of issuing such certificates. We’ve also had such debates. The Government discussed this issue in several rounds, and eventually we decided that we should make the necessary preparations. There will be a question about this in the consultation. If the public believe that those with immunity should be given more freedom – and at the end of the consultation we’ll see whether Hungarians take this view – then we should make preparations to ensure that there are no technical obstacles to granting such separate treatment or privileges to those who have immunity. There are three groups. There are those who have been vaccinated, and are on a national register for that. There are those who are on the official records of patients who have already had the infection, as confirmed by PCR tests. And then there’s a third group which will be the most difficult to identify: those who haven’t been officially tested and therefore aren’t featured on the official register of people who have had the infection, but who have antibodies, as they’ve had the infection without being aware of the fact. It would be fair if, after an antibody or some other test, we could also make some arrangements for these people to be included on the list of those with the protection of immunity. After the consultation we’ll see what people think. I’m very interested in this question. There’s nothing more exciting than receiving some kind of feedback on one’s own country, one’s own people, one’s own nation, one’s own kind: what Hungarians think about giving freedom to those for whom continuing restrictions make no sense, even if we personally aren’t in that category. This would mean that others could lead lives with less restriction than we could. Do we accept this, or not? I think we’ll learn a lot about our sense of generosity and fairness. These are intriguing questions.
They certainly are if it turns out that we’re not envious. At the Governmentinfo press conference we heard that businesses in distress have applied for wage support funding of 36 billion forints, and within the space of two weeks you’d managed to speed up payments. As a result, the Government has already paid these businesses 35 billion of the 36 billion. There is the question, however, of what would be the best way of helping the smallest businesses: sole traders. There are very many of them in the most vulnerable sectors, and relatively few of them have benefited from this wage support funding.
We’re trying everything we can, but what’s most important for everyone is that there are enough people with immunity as soon as possible, thus enabling us to get rid of the restrictions. At that point life can resume in the sectors which have sustained the largest losses, including hospitality and restaurant services, cultural event organisation and the hotel industry. Naturally we must provide wage support funding, and we’re also offering preferential loans, about which I’ll say a few words in a minute; but the top priority is to be able to return to normal life as soon as possible. Or when there are enough people who have been vaccinated – two to three million – plus those who have had the infection, then at least they should be allowed to enjoy more freedom in life – not only for their own personal freedom, but also in the interest of these sectors. People work in these sectors. And if we could at least allow people who have been vaccinated or have had the infection to drink or dine outside, or offer them hotel and restaurant services, we could save a significant number of jobs – perhaps tens of thousands. In that case this many people would be earning decent wages again. So the biggest help for every single economic sector in distress today is vaccination, the lifting of restrictions and the relaunch of the country. But we’re providing wage support funding, as you said; and an important element of the economic relaunch action plan – we have a relaunch action plan – is the 10-million-forint interest-free loans with repayment deferred for three years which we’re offering all small businesses. We don’t want to offer these to large businesses. Let’s be clear: this isn’t intended for them, and it’s not even intended for medium-sized businesses; it’s only for small businesses that are genuinely in distress and need money quickly. I think there will be enormous demand for this, according to projections. A very large number of micro- and small enterprises will take out these loans of up to 10 million forints. We’re currently finalising – or are close to finalising – the details, and we’ll make this product available to businesses soon.
Could there be an increase in the amount the Government allocates to these businesses?
The truth is that the Finance Minister – whose duty it is to look after the country’s financial stability, and who’s responsible for the budget – always likes to have an upper limit. As far as I can see, we’ll reach that limit soon, so we’ll very rapidly use it up. Once this sum of 100 billion forints is used up – and provided that there’s demand from micro- and small enterprises – I’ll try to convince the Finance Minister to remove this upper limit, and to grant all applications. This will be the biggest help. There’s help in general, but the biggest help for micro- and small enterprises now in distress is to have rapid easy access – without any undue bureaucratic obstacles – to interest-free loans of 10 million forints, which they’ll only need to start repaying in three years’ time. There’s hardly any bigger help than that. So those who need it should take this help.
I’ve just spoken to an acquaintance of mine who wants to refurbish their bathroom, but all the craftsmen are booked up until August. It seems that family support also came at a good time, with families able to refurbish their homes and the state reimbursing half the costs.
The situation is that we’ll have to expect a labour shortage. At present everyone is talking about how many people’s jobs had to be protected because of the crisis. I’d note that in Hungary at the beginning of January more people were in work than at the same time last year, before the crisis. So we’ve protected jobs excellently. It’s true that many people have been forced to go part-time, but they still have their jobs. That’s in the past now; now we’re no longer defending, we’re attacking. We have a relaunch action plan, and we should expect that there will instantly be labour shortages in Hungary, especially in the building industry. Your example also proves this, and the data I have leads us to the same conclusion, as we’re launching an unprecedentedly wide range of home refurbishment opportunities. We’ve increased the available home creation funding, and cut VAT on housing construction projects to 5 per cent. So there will be an unprecedented housing boom – or one that we haven’t seen for a long time. So very many things will start now. There’s enormous interest in these home refurbishment grants, because for less well-off people this is much more accessible, much more tangible, and much easier to use than the family housing benefit [CSOK], which requires you to start a major independent home construction or extension project. So I believe that this will be a popular programme. The combination of this and the loan of 10 million forints for micro- and small enterprises will reach a very large number of people. And believe me, the relaunch of the economy will be successful. We have an excellent action plan. From today, pensioners will be receiving the first weekly instalment of their “thirteenth month’s pension”; we’ll be able to reintroduce this over a period of four years. With this we’ll manage to undo the last crime of the preceding left-wing governments – or at least end the damage caused by their taking money from people, from pensioners who worked all their lives to support their families and to keep the country running. Back then management of the crisis of 2008–2009 was based on taking away their pensions. I’m happy that after ten years, we’ll manage to make compensation for this raid by the Left, and we’ll start reintroduction of the thirteenth month’s pension. Following this there will be personal income tax exemption for people under the age of 25. So I think that this whole relaunch will involve a huge amount of work. It will be a tough gig, if I can put it that way. There are many detailed aspects, but we’ll throw our weight into it and push forward. This will be set in motion, and the Hungarian economy will more rapidly return to the level of performance – remarkable even by international standards – which we were producing before the crisis.
You mentioned that today the first instalment of the thirteenth month’s pension will start being transferred or delivered by postal workers to pensioners. László Varju, a politician from [the opposition party] DK, said that this is just a sticking-plaster solution. But I recall that in 2009 – when [Prime Minister] Gordon Bajnai announced the introduction of austerity measures, saying “This will hurt” – László Varju himself was a member of the same government that deprived pensioners of the thirteenth month’s pension.
The Left aren’t in an easy situation, and perhaps they’ll understand if I don’t start shedding crocodile tears because of that. We’re removing the stains of all their sins. They took away pensions, and they took the thirteenth month’s salary from public servants, including from doctors and nurses. For nurses we’ve implemented a pay rise of around 70 per cent spread over three years, while we’ve launched an unprecedented pay rise for doctors. The fact is that I must look in two directions at once. The remaining rubble from left-wing governance that came to an end ten years ago must be cleared away, which includes reintroducing the thirteenth month’s pension. Meanwhile preparations must be made for the future: digitalisation, a green economy, a circular economy. We must do both things at once, and when developing our economic policy we must satisfy both sets of demands. The action plan for relaunching the economy includes both the removal of the last remaining rubble of left-wing governance and the opening of a new era.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.