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

Katalin Nagy: We’re in a steeply rising phase of the third wave, and unfortunately it seems that our worst nightmares are coming true. This is what the Chief Medical Officer has said. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What are today’s numbers? Youve come here from a meeting of the Operational Group.

Good morning to your listeners. The data from the Operational Group meeting confirmed the Chief Medical Officer’s statement. There have been 4,668 new infections, and we’ve lost 123 people – we offer our condolences to their families. There are 451 of our compatriots who are fighting for survival on ventilators, and 5,027 are in hospital. The situation is indeed deteriorating dramatically, and so once more we’re having to face the kind of numbers that we had a few months ago and which we thought we’d never have to face again. Now the number we must closely observe is whether there are any free hospital beds in general and the number with ventilators, because doctors agree that in the next two weeks the number of new infections will rise dramatically rather than gradually, and so we can expect a significant increase. Again the question is whether or not the capacity of the Hungarian healthcare system, the dedication and perseverance of our doctors and nurses, and the adequate availability of equipment will enable us to stand our ground in the defence operation. This is where we are now: we have 15,831 free beds, including 2,296 equipped with ventilators. These numbers seem to be far – in fact very far – from where we are now, but we expect to see a sharp rise in the pressure on hospitals, in the number of serious infections over the next two weeks.

This week you had meetings with epidemiological experts. Over the past year, have they ever been wrong about what we could expect?

No. There have always been some errors of 1 to 2 per cent; but we can be grateful to them, because our professors of medicine, mathematical epidemiologists and professors at the Medical Research Council have, without exception, always made themselves available. If we’ve needed to meet within three hours, they’ve got here to meetings in Budapest from any hospital and research institution anywhere in the country. They’ve always been on call. Secondly, they’re calm and composed people, who never lose their nerve – even in times of the greatest danger and potential chaos. This is understandable for doctors, who know how to act in a calm and composed manner and stand their ground in life-threatening situations. Thirdly, their projections have proved to be right, with only very minor deviations. At times there have been debates about whether one trend or another would start within a week or two or start later; but that it would indeed start has been predicted with almost 100 per cent accuracy.

Now that the number of hospital admissions has suddenly jumped, do healthcare managers think that the system will be able to cope?

I came here from a long and difficult Operational Group meeting this morning. The others stayed behind, and I think they’ll continue working for some hours. When I left, however, the discussion had come to the point at which I needed to order a higher level of readiness in hospitals. The situation is now so serious that we need a raised level of preparedness. We have new hospital managers, but fortunately I haven’t withdrawn the hospital commanders appointed to our hospitals. This means that we have a stronger management system, because there are also uniformed officers in the management of every hospital. So when needed we’ll be able to take the swiftest and most effective action.

Is this what’s meant by a raised level of preparedness?

Yes – together with the need to review the redeployment lists. At times like this we transfer doctors and nurses, which is quite an inconvenience for them. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for participating in this and being at our disposal. They must be redeployed, these lists must be reviewed, and the necessary accommodation facilities must be checked again. So we’re bringing back the level of preparedness that we had in April, and then in mid-November.

But this doesn’t mean that there won’t be enough doctors at the vaccination centres, does it?

There will be enough doctors, because the vaccination programme is primarily based on general practitioners. And it’s turned out that Minister Kásler was wise and farsighted in deciding to not allow hospitals to fully return to their normal, pre-pandemic operations: he only authorised certain types of hospital intervention. Therefore the doctors who aren’t now performing their regular duties can be deployed in the fight against the pandemic.

The other very important factor is that everyone’s racing against time to vaccinate as many people as possible, because then perhaps what you yourself have called this very difficult period could be shortened. Is there enough vaccine? For instance, have we reserved enough Moderna vaccine? There’s been a press report claiming that, commensurate with its population, Hungary could have reserved more.

Balderdash. We’ve reserved 17 million doses of vaccine! As far as reservations are concerned, we’re in a strong position. If reservations were what we could vaccinate people with, we’d be home and dry; but you can only vaccinate people with the vaccine itself. The vaccines reserved by the EU simply aren’t arriving – they’re coming through even slower than projected. We’d be in deep trouble if we didn’t have Russian and Chinese vaccines here in the country. Now we’re vaccinating with the Chinese vaccine, and I hope that at the weekend or the beginning of next week my turn will also come. The Chief Medical Officer has said that those directing the defence operation can now be given the Chinese vaccine, because now the containment effort demands it. So I’ll also be vaccinated. I think the behaviour of some Hungarian political actors has been irresponsible. Let’s be clear: I’m talking about the Left. They’re anti-vaccination, they continually peddle fake news, generate uncertainty, and somehow want to dissuade people from having themselves vaccinated. This is despite the fact that we – especially the elderly – have just one chance of survival: vaccination. Therefore – as vaccination is voluntary – I ask everyone to register, so that we know who wants to be vaccinated, and we can inoculate them as quickly as possible.

Are more vaccines arriving?

We can expect a continuous supply of vaccines. From the news we can see that it always turns out that fewer vaccines arrive from the West than was previously reported. At present around 2.5 or 2.6 million people have registered, and today we reviewed the state of progress on the vaccination plan. I can tell you that by Easter everyone who has registered will have had at least their first vaccination. When we get to that point Hungary will have by far the highest rate of vaccination in the European Union.

The Government has decided to extend the restrictions until 15 March. We’d thought that from the beginning of March the restrictions could be eased to a tiny extent, but we’ve had to acknowledge that this isn’t possible. Is it necessary to tighten the rules, or is it enough to keep the current restrictions?

This is double-edged, and we’re both crying and laughing at the same time. This not only happens in tales and literature, but also in reality; and this is exactly the situation now. On the one hand we’re laughing, because we have vaccines, vaccination is under way, and we can start considering lifting the restrictions. This is the theme of our national consultation, which hundreds of thousands of people have already completed. I’d like to encourage listeners who haven’t yet done so to state their opinions in it. And just as we’ve been preparing to lift the restrictions, we’ve entered a temporary steeply rising phase for two to three weeks. For that reason we’re crying. We must both discuss how to ease the restrictions, and at the same time be disciplined in observing the restrictions that are still in effect. We’re continuously reviewing – and I’m reviewing – proposals for a possible tightening of the rules. The events of the next few days will show us whether or not this is necessary. One thing is certain: we’ll have to tighten the rules at the borders. This morning I found out that, in addition to those applying for the vaccine against the coronavirus, there’s been a perceptible increase in the number of people registering for vaccines needed for travel to exotic destinations. This means that they want to travel to Africa, say, where I believe prices have fallen and everything’s different. But African variants have emerged. If now we allow people to go to Africa they’ll go there, because it’s cheap; but on the way back they’ll bring home these much faster spreading virus mutations. The reason our numbers are rising is that a new variant has appeared. If mutations are also brought back from Africa, then we’re done for. So I’ve asked the Operational Group to develop very strict travel regulations. Members of the business community must also understand that under such circumstances travel to countries outside Europe – even business travel – will have to be tightly restricted, because it could lead to the introduction to Hungary of new, faster spreading mutations. Travel for business is allowed, and Hungarians are clever enough to claim that they’re also doing business over there. I apologise for this malicious presumption, but I’ve seen things like this more than once or twice.

The European Union is holding a summit. It began yesterday afternoon, and will continue today. If we only look at this question of borders, is it reasonable – at a time when there aren’t enough vaccines in the European Union – for us to see reports that the European Commission wants to launch infringement procedures against six countries due to the partial closure of their borders?

There were long debates about this yesterday. Everyone’s concerned that these closures could lead to the paralysis of the European economy. Therefore everyone’s trying to minimise restrictions linked to the transportation of goods. The biggest problem has been caused by testing truck drivers; that was caused by the Germans, so it’s a German affair. Two of Germany’s neighbours – Austria and the Czech Republic – spoke out against this. This is understandable, but I think that the problem in the European Union is so serious that now is not the time to call one another to account. This isn’t a realistic option. Communications can be sent in all directions, but now every country must protect itself; and while we’re restricting the flow of people, we must as far as possible maintain the flow of goods and capital that’s necessary for business and the operation of the economy.

Did you talk about the procurement of vaccines? Was there discussion of the issue of responsibility for the fact that there aren’t enough vaccines in the EU?

Of course there was. After all, in Germany we see the continuous emergence of the contracts concluded by the Commission, and their details. My suspicion also appears to have been confirmed: in the negotiations the Commission did well in trying to procure vaccines as cheaply as possible, but in doing so they’ve lost time. In the head of a bureaucrat, money is obviously more important than time; but in real life, outside the Brussels bubble, matters are the other way around. Time is more important than the current best price of a vaccine; and as I see it, we’ve lost much precious time by wanting to negotiate down the price of vaccines. The Commission could be given a smack on the backside for this, and some are openly giving it one; but I’m not one of those, and I’d rather defend the Commission – I believe that at this time we shouldn’t weaken one another. In this situation the wisdom is that there’s no use crying over spilt milk. That won’t help us: we must support the Commission, they should do their job, and the better they do it the better-off we will be. But in the meantime we can’t stand on just one leg. At the summit of prime ministers yesterday I also pointed out that the Hungarian strategy stands on two legs. Naturally we have faith in the Commission, but within our national competence we also have the right to grant approval, and we’re importing any vaccine that is safe, effective and approved by the Hungarian authorities. We’re exercising our national competence and, having procured Russian and Chinese vaccines, this is why within a day or two Hungary will have by far the highest inoculation rate in the entire European Union.

Is it true that they’re asking for Moscow’s telephone number?

It’s not appropriate to reveal any information about diplomatic discussions and private conversations. At the end of the day, the leaders of the European Union are normal people. At times they speak Eurobabble, which makes it harder for us to understand them, but they’re all smart, serious and responsible leaders. They, too, are suffering, and they’re seeing people die. People are dying, our freedom is restricted, jobs are being lost, and they want to take action. And as we’ve surrendered the right to independent action, having agreed that the Commission should conduct talks on our behalf, those who aren’t using their national competence are sitting at home, frustrated and unable to take action. We’re not among them, because Brussels can tell us anything they like: if we have the right to procure vaccines on a national basis and there’s a problem, we’ll procure them and we’ll take action. Not everyone thinks like this: there are some who have more faith in the Commission than in themselves. In Hungary we don’t have that problem: we have more faith in ourselves than in the Commission. But those who think the opposite are now feeling frustrated. They want to take action, they’re unsatisfied, they want to save their people, and they don’t have the means to do so. It’s a terrible feeling. I appreciate that, and we ourselves would be in the same situation if we didn’t have Chinese and Russian vaccines and hadn’t made timely arrangements for registration. We’d be in the same situation if – under the leadership of Minister of State István György – we hadn’t arranged for a high vaccination capacity that exceeds the number of vaccines available. Just imagine what a terrible feeling it would be for us to have the vaccines here and be unable to inoculate people rapidly enough so that as a result people fell ill or died. This isn’t the situation in Hungary, where we’d be able to inoculate far more people than we have vaccines for. Perhaps I’m saying this somewhat prematurely, but this is why the experience to date shows that implementation of the vaccination programme is well-organised and successful.

Yes, but in Brussels they might also ponder on the fact that perhaps the British themselves didn’t believe that so soon after Brexit they’d benefit from having left the community.

We’ll see whether this is the case in the long run, but everyone at the summit of prime ministers yesterday said that this is indeed a disturbing fact. The summit will continue today, incidentally. Yesterday the pandemic was on the agenda, while today we’ll deal with security and military issues, and the main strategic directions of our foreign policy. Anyway, yesterday everyone said that it’s a disturbing thought that earlier we continually claimed that there might be life outside the European Union, but it’s definitely more wretched than life within it. Compared with that, we have a problem here, and it’s turned out that the British are doing better than we are. It’s embarrassing.

Let me ask one more question about the consultation. Last week there was some disruption, with an organised cyberattack launched against government websites. Is it possible to prevent such attacks so that people will be able to complete the consultation questionnaire?

Well, we don’t know what aspect is domestic politics and what is international. Every country has rivals in the international arena, and we can never rule out that at times they might resort to methods that overstep the bounds of morality. This is why Hungary has a cyber defence programme for both its military and civilian systems. We’re defending ourselves against unauthorised incursions of this type. We don’t have enemies in the world at large, so in theory it wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to harm us; but not everyone thinks this way, and from time-to-time others cause us harm. Such attacks are regularly launched from outside the country. And there are also internal attacks. There are two types: there are those that are clearly politically motivated; and then there are the imbeciles, if I may put it like that. There are well qualified computer experts who take pleasure in attacking IT systems that are important for people’s security. The Hungarian penal code defines this as a crime, and provides for penalties. We’re trying to defend ourselves. We’re heading ever faster towards a modern world, and an ever-increasing part of our life is arranged and enacted in the digital sphere. Therefore our exposure and vulnerability are also increasing. So while we’re engaged in modernisation and digitalisation, we must at the same time build our defence capability to ensure people’s personal safety, freedom and dignity, and to protect the nation’s common interest. We’re continuously developing these defence systems.

Several sectors have had very tough first-hand experience of this crisis. One only needs to mention the hospitality and tourism industries. An interesting figure has emerged, with the Foreign Minister mentioning how much money we’re losing every single day. In addition to the thousands needing hospitalisation and those who are dying, every day we’re losing 15 billion forints in our economy; this is the profit we’ve been losing, that would have been generated by a fully operating economy, or is simply being lost to the Hungarian economy because we cannot restart. Are there enough instruments for relaunching the economy?

We’ve published the programme for relaunching the economy, and we’ve managed to channel quite a lot of information about this to the people: they can see the opportunities offered by the defence operation, they can see exactly what they can claim. But the situation is that this third wave is putting the jobs of tens of thousands of our compatriots at risk, and a huge number of people are going through a difficult period. Here we must strike a compassionate tone: it’s not enough to simply solve the problems; we must also recognise that a great many people are in a precarious position, and we mustn’t leave anyone by the wayside – we must take care of them, too. We’ve launched wage support programmes and job rescue programmes, and we’ve adopted a few further decisions that we’ll make public at some point. As I see it, we have the means to pay in advance some of the funding that we’ve offered so far, half of the wages of the employees in businesses that have found themselves in a difficult situation. And we’ll continue this funding not only until restrictions are lifted, but also in the subsequent month. So we’ll do everything we can for people who are now going through a difficult phase. The top priority is to prevent them from losing their jobs. I always check how many people were in employment in Hungary a year ago, and how many people are now. This number is continuously changing. At present we’re in a difficult phase, because now 55,000 fewer people are in work than a year ago. So in the next two to three months we’ll need to regain, to recreate 55,000 jobs. We’ve pledged – and I’ll fight tooth and nail to honour this pledge – to create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus. We now stand at minus 55,000, and in the next two to three months we’ll have to get back to at least zero, or preferably more. We have the means to do this. We feel for those in distress, and we want them to feel that we’re standing by them. We’ve launched the forms of funding that will tide them over this difficult period; and after the relaunch we’ll continue to do everything we can to enable them to get their jobs back.

So we’ll hear about the details in the next few days.

Yes.

There’s another very important question, and although at present it might not be the most important, after all many people love animals, and feel that now the level of protection for them isn’t high enough – because it hasn’t been possible, due to a lack of adequate rules. An animal welfare consultation has been launched, which quite a large number of people have completed online. Will there be answers in future legislation to all of the questions in the consultation?

To tell you the truth, I’ve also completed that questionnaire. It’s an important cause, but the virus, the pandemic, the creation of jobs, the rising phase of the third wave, and shortages of vaccines are somehow pushing this issue towards the back of people’s minds. But I’ve completed it, and I believe that it’s important. After all, I’m a guy from a village, so I know something about animals and how they should and shouldn’t be treated. I’ve seen enough good examples and bad examples. Additionally, the numbers are rising. When I completed this animal welfare consultation questionnaire the other day I checked, and found out that in Hungary there are around two million dogs and two million cats. Earlier these numbers were lower. At the same time, there are tens of millions of farm animals. So what we’re talking about isn’t a minor issue; we must ask our compatriots to keep animals responsibly, and naturally we must protect animals. Causing living creatures unnecessary suffering is wrong in itself. So we’re protecting animals, but between you and I, we’re protecting ourselves; because what kind of person causes another living being pain for no reason, except their own pleasure? This isn’t only a danger to animals, but also to us humans. The more people realise how to treat animals correctly and responsibly, the safer we humans will also be. So there are two sides to this coin.

So clearly there will be appropriate solutions in future legislation.

We have an excellent Member of Parliament, Mr. Ovádi, who’s responsible for this issue, and who bombards us with his proposals. There’s no shortage of initiative, ideas and spirit. I hope that after the pandemic we’ll have the energy to deal with this question as well. But right now please understand – and I ask everyone to understand – that the pandemic, deaths and hospitals are foremost in our minds. In due course the necessary animal welfare legislation will also be created.

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