Exclusive interview with Viktor Orbán on the "This Evening" programme on Hungarian public service television channel M1
12 September 2020
Tünde Volf-Nagy: Welcome to our viewers. Good evening, Prime Minister. In a single day 916 new infections were registered. The Operational Group met this morning, and later the operational unit responsible for the protection of the economy also met. What decisions were adopted?
Every morning I begin my day by checking the latest numbers. I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but we must prepare for this number to rise even higher. What we must focus our attention on during the second wave of the pandemic, however, is not the number of infections, but the number of deaths. Now we’re defending ourselves differently, and as a result the number of infections is higher; but we can keep the number of deaths low. So this time around we can measure the success of our containment effort in the number of deaths – or lives saved.
The first wave of the pandemic took everyone by surprise, and important decisions had to be made in almost a matter of days. We’ve been expecting the second wave, and one way or another we could even prepare for it. Yet this second wave is completely different from the first one. On the one hand, as you mentioned, new records are being broken day after day. On the other hand, in the first wave the country went into lockdown; while now, during the second wave, Prime Minister, you’ve said that the country must remain functioning, whilst guaranteeing the protection of human lives. How can we reconcile these two factors, these two very important factors?
In a state of danger we must defend ourselves – and in the spring this was the case, as is it now; and if we want our defence operation to succeed, we need a battle plan. We had a battle plan in the spring, and we have a battle plan now in the autumn. These are two different battle plans. Now, in the autumn, our situation is somewhat easier because we have experience. We know a great many things that we didn’t know in the spring, when we were facing an unknown enemy. But now we’re well acquainted with it. At the same time, in the spring healthcare systems around the world – including in Europe – weren’t set up for the protection of their citizens. In Hungary we were also concerned about the Hungarian healthcare system’s ability to protect the public. The answer is that it was able to do so – thanks to doctors, to disease control experts and nurses, to [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller, to Minister Kásler, and to many others. On the whole, the Hungarian healthcare system was able to take the strain and it withstood the pressure. And, at a calm unhurried place, by the autumn we were able to prepare our hospitals and our companies manufacturing healthcare equipment needed for the containment effort against a second wave. And now our situation is also easier because gaining time means gaining lives – and we’ve gained a few months. In the summer we conducted a national consultation. From this we now know exactly what people expect, what they’re hoping for, what they want, how they want our defence operation to be conducted – or how they advise us to conduct our defence operation. And this is a great reassurance. So redirecting your question towards me personally, I can say that compared with the spring I’m much more relaxed now, and probably also more self-confident, because I know exactly what we’re up against. I know perfectly well that we have equipment for the fight against the virus, and I know precisely what people want. I’m not manning the defences alone, as I have the support of one million eight hundred thousand people; and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for returning the national consultation questionnaires and designating the direction of our defence. This is completely clear: the direction of defence is that Hungary must remain operational. The people expect the Government, me, the healthcare system and those involved in managing the economy to keep Hungary fully operational, and not to allow the virus to paralyse the country and Hungarians’ day-to-day lives.
Were you able to use the national consultation as the basis for your decisions? I’m asking this because these questions and answers were written when the situation was completely different from the situation as it stands now.
To what extent can you reconcile the opinions of healthcare experts, the Chief Medical Officer, virologists and disease control experts with those of economic experts?
This isn’t impossible at all – but they must be kept in separate rooms! Joking aside, everyone has their own viewpoint. Virologists, doctors and disease control specialists can also see that now they must give us advice which won’t force us to put the country into lockdown. So we don’t want curfews or restrictions on movement, and we don’t want to return to online teaching. We want everything to operate as normal: jobs, schools – even sports, culture and the arts. In other words, for life in Hungary to be normal. We want tourism and the hospitality industry to work. I’m not saying that everything can operate as if nothing has happened, but we can keep things functioning. Of course this requires everyone to observe the few safety rules that we’ve adopted. There aren’t many: to wear face masks in places where we’re required to; to observe social distancing; to stay away from the company of others if we feel unwell, and so forth. We’ve adopted a number of rules. We’ve imposed visiting bans in hospitals and care homes. We mustn’t break the rules and try to sneak in; we must accept that visitors aren’t allowed in now, so we shouldn’t go. We must wear face masks on BKV [Budapest Public Transport], and on public transport in general; if we have to wear face masks in shops where there are other people, we must obey that rule. Today we adopted a few decisions which also provide for sanctions. For instance, if a person doesn’t wear a face mask in a shop, then he or she will inevitably receive a fine, and so will the shopkeeper. For a second offence the owner of the shop will be issued a warning, and in the event of a third offence we will close down the shop. So there are a few rules which we respectfully ask everyone to observe. We don’t want unpleasantness, we don’t want to be harsh, and we don’t want the state to flex its muscles; we’re simply asking everyone to use their common sense and act responsibly. But we don’t want anyone to doubt that if the rules aren’t observed, then they must be enforced.
Prime Minister, you’ve spoken about sanctions, discipline and the police in relation to hospitals and care homes, where the police will ensure that visiting bans are in place and are observed. And you’ve said that this must be achieved with police action if needs be. Won’t this instil fear in people, rather than reassure them?
It must be communicated well. If we express it in a threatening tone, everyone will be nervous. But I’d like to make it clear that in adopting these decisions we’re being guided by the common good. We don’t want to enforce the rules because rules are rules and obeying rules is a good thing in itself, but the reverse: we want to say that these are all rational rules – rules that will protect us. If we fail to observe these rules, we will bring trouble on ourselves – and not only on ourselves, but most of all on others. So it is right to observe these rules. And others also have every right to expect us to observe the rules. If we fail to do so, however, people have every right to expect the police to enforce the rules. This should simply be expressed without harshness, but as a clear, reasonable request in the public interest and in a tone of cooperation.
Prime Minister, you mentioned schools earlier. Many believe that it was irresponsible to start this school year – although my little girl has said that she’s so happy she can finally go back to school that I shouldn’t even dare raise this question, in case the Prime Minister considers closing schools again. Was it irresponsible to allow normal education to continue, especially as the number of new infections is continuing to rise?
On the basis of the consultation it was clear that if you have children – and I have a few – then parents want school to start in September as normal. If there is trouble, then we should try to reorganise classes; and if isolation becomes necessary, classes should be isolated, rather than entire schools being closed. What’s more, there are settlements which have never had any coronavirus infections and never will have any; in those it’s obviously unreasonable to keep schools closed. In the spring the situation was different: we didn’t know exactly how much damage the virus can cause, and we didn’t know whether our healthcare system would be able to withstand the pressure. Therefore the reasonable decision was to do everything we could to reduce the pressure on our healthcare system. We remember that in Western Europe thousands – tens of thousands – died in hospitals or on hospital corridors, and were buried in mass graves. So the situation in the spring was very serious. Hungary cleared this hurdle well not only by that comparison, but by any comparison. Comparing our country’s performance with that of other countries, I can say that our defence operation was successful. So closing schools was the right policy in the spring. Back then we also thought long and hard about the matter, and eventually came to that conclusion. There’s no reason for that now. The idea of restricting the opening of schools won’t even arise unless the number of deaths starts rising, and for the time being it seems that we’re managing to protect the elderly.
The Minister, Gergely Gulyás, has said that it seems as if the virus is probably less virulent now than it was in the spring. Eminent doctors, however, say that this is not why fewer people are being hospitalised, requiring assisted ventilation or dying. They say that the reason is simply that at this time the virus is infecting young people, but that within days infections could start reaching the elderly as well. Are you prepared for this?
I would caution everyone – laypersons like myself – against embarking on crash courses in virology. Naturally everyone has their own opinion, and perhaps that’s inevitable, but we shouldn’t believe that we have special knowledge. I wouldn’t dare to make such a claim – all I’d say is that we have experience. We must make decisions by listening to virologists, doctors, the Minister and epidemiological experts; and our decisions must be made by drawing together all their opinions. We’ll see what will happen. One thing is certain: we must work every day; every morning we must consult the experts, we must meet them and listen to them several times every week. The most important things now are flexibility, the ability to take action and to respond rapidly. This is how I begin every day and this is how I go through every week. I meet the Operational Group at least once a week, but usually two or three times a week. I meet the economic operational group, and we always amend our decisions when necessary. But we’re not yet dealing with details, as what we have to do now is identify the direction of our decisions. This is what people expect from us, and my message to the public is that the direction of our decisions is clear: the country must continue functioning.
You say that the country must continue functioning, but Sweden comes to mind as a negative example: in that country there was no defence operation, on the grounds that the economy and the country needed to continue functioning. As a result the pandemic spread unchecked, and the death rate was very high. Aren’t you concerned that this scenario could also occur in Hungary?
It’s very important not to forget about the elderly. Every expert agrees that the people most at risk are those suffering from chronic disease and the elderly. We must focus special attention on them, and so this will be an ongoing effort. There’s a disease control monitoring service, we’re continuously monitoring what’s happening, and we’ll introduce restrictions if necessary. Today we also have a few on the agenda. Of course these aren’t restrictions on everyday life, but more about whether or not we should close bars and clubs after 11 p.m., say. They’re about how to enforce the wearing of face masks in shops or on public transport, or whether we should – and this is something we’ve already decided on – close hospitals and care homes to visitors, and change their visiting protocols. Another question was whether parents should be allowed to enter school buildings. No, parents aren’t allowed to enter school buildings.
Or whether we should check children’s temperatures when they enter the school building. We’ll be able to check every child’s temperature from 1 October. Today this is recommended, but from 1 October it will be compulsory, and there will be the conditions to guarantee it. I could continue. So day by day we’re making a number of practical decisions through which we’re seeking to protect the health and lives of our elderly compatriots. This, I believe, is the top priority. I measure everything in human lives. I think that the spring containment measures enabled us to save thousands of lives – more like ten thousand lives – of elderly Hungarian citizens. And this time we won’t risk a single life either. Meanwhile, however, the country must continue to function; and I believe that both these things are possible at the same time.
Prime Minister, you said that we’re armed to the teeth against the virus. Is this also true of health care? And I’m not just talking about weapons, but also soldiers. Do we have enough weapons and enough soldiers?
Yes, we do. We have more than ten thousand hospital beds which can be used in a pandemic – from tonight if necessary. There are doctors and nurses for these beds, and we can deploy them if necessary. There is personal protective equipment, and we have ventilators. When I said that I’m much more relaxed and self-confident – and we can all be – than I was in the spring, it’s because we tested the Hungarian healthcare system in a big military-style exercise. We pressure tested it, and it withstood the test. Since then we’ve gained even more in strength and we’ve adopted decisions, so I’m certain that not a single Hungarian will have to suffer or die due to a healthcare system that’s unable to accommodate them and provide them with appropriate care. The Hungarian healthcare system is able to protect the life of every single Hungarian.
Let’s talk a little about the economy. Optimists say that in Hungary the economic data for the first six months of the year was better than that for Europe in general. In France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom there were bigger slowdowns than in Hungary. Meanwhile pessimists say that, after all is said and done, the country is still in recession.
I’m no fan of such comparisons: how are we helped by knowing how we compare to other countries? What helps us is knowing what’s going on in Hungary, and improving the situation. The most important thing is jobs. The Hungarian government made a very clear pledge. I myself stood by this pledge when I said that we would create as many jobs as were destroyed by the virus. If you look at this year’s employment figures – say for March, so pre-crisis figures – and compare them with today’s employment figures, you’ll see that we’ve kept our promise. Indeed the number of people in work will continue to increase throughout the rest of the year; so instead of losing jobs, we will create new jobs, having put a lot of energy and money into launching investments. Hungarian businesses haven’t weakened, but have strengthened. There are serious problems in one area: the tourism sector in Budapest. This is because tourism in Budapest is based almost one hundred per cent on foreigners. And now this has collapsed. The business model according to which Budapest’s hotels and restaurants operate will not only be untenable this year, but next year also. Foreigners accounting for more than ninety per cent of guest nights will be untenable, because in my opinion world tourism won’t return to normal even in 2021. So in Budapest something different will need to be done, the business model will need to be changed: targeted assistance will have to be given to taxi drivers, restaurateurs, hotels and people in general working in areas linked to tourism. Moreover, investments and developments in other areas could absorb the workforce that’s released when one business or another goes under. So on the whole we’re able to create enough jobs. Another thing we must pay attention to is the living standards of families. We’re not talking about just six months: I think we should be thinking more in terms of eighteen months to two years. I believe that the right thing to do now is to create the post of a minister without portfolio responsible for family affairs, a minister focusing on families. In order to protect the living standards of families, we must broaden the powers and potential of Minister of State Katalin Novák, who currently works within the Ministry of Human Capacities. She will have to direct this work from 1 October.
Prime Minister, you’ve just mentioned taxi drivers, Budapest taxi drivers. I took a taxi recently, and the driver asked me who was going to help them. We can see that domestic tourism is flourishing. I was in Balatonfűzfő at the weekend, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people on the shores of Lake Balaton. Budapest is in trouble, however. You say that Budapest City Council should help Budapest’s taxi drivers, for example, as it levies business tax on them. In response the other side claims that the Government has abandoned the capital.
No, we’re helping everyone. We’ve cut contributions, which also affect people living in the capital. We’ve reduced social insurance contributions, and this has also benefited businesspeople in Budapest. We’ve also offered three months’ relief on "KATA" tax for small businesses. We didn’t differentiate between Budapest and the countryside. The issue is rather that we need a specific Budapest programme. Let me repeat, here in Budapest there’s a need for business models to change. It’s good news that the capital has more than one hundred billion forints which they could use for such a purpose. I think the time has come to deploy it.
Prime Minister, on Friday you also met with other leaders from the V4 countries. It’s clear that in this crisis the V4 have gained in strength, their unity has strengthened. In the first wave the V4 countries did very well, but now in the second wave they’re not doing so well. For instance, Germany has now followed Brussels and Paris in declaring Prague a high-risk area. In light of this, is it justified to grant the V4 countries special status for their citizens’ to enter Hungary?
It’s always justified – most of all because we’re in daily contact with them. We know precisely what’s happening in Prague, what protective measures they have, and what decisions they’re adopting. Now we’ve even set up a disease control consultation office under the Polish presidency, to strengthen these relations even more. So if you were to ask me which countries we have the most certain knowledge about in terms of their fight against the virus, if they’re doing well or poorly, I’d tell you that we have this knowledge about the Slovaks, the Czechs and the Poles. This is because we’re in continuous daily contact with them. Therefore it’s always reasonable to make special rules for them – rules that are different from those applying to other countries. So in any area – trade, travel, border policing or tourism – I always think about the V4 as a separate group, and this is also true when applying rules. In Europe we must prepare for a rise in the number of infections, as now the virus has also reached young people. We no longer have clusters, but mass infection. The number of infections will be higher in every country. In countries which are containing the situation effectively there will be a low death rate, and governments’ performance will determine whether or not they’re able to protect the living standards of people and families. In my view, the governments of Central Europe – not only in Hungary, but also in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – are doing well enough for me to dare to say that they’ll be able to protect the living standards of families in their countries. Hungary also forms part of this group. We will manage this. We shall protect the lives of the elderly. We accept that we’ll have to live with a higher infection rate, and at the same time we’ll preserve the viability of the economy and the country – whilst naturally helping everyone to recover. So if there are problems, our hospitals are there for everyone.
I spent the first wave of the pandemic in Berlin. In addition to the coronavirus, I witnessed another virus devastating the European and German press and politics: a virus of defamation against Hungary. Almost daily one could read that the Hungarian parliament had been dissolved and that the Government had cast the law aside. To make matters worse, this was written by a German journalist who speaks Hungarian rather well. The Bertelsmann Foundation presented a scathing depiction of the state of Hungarian democracy on the very day that the European Commission confirmed the constitutionality of the measures adopted here. And today the Hungarian government is being lambasted for its border restrictions. What is at the root of these attacks?
Big state, big ego. For some reason the Germans believe that their democracy is better than Hungary’s. They’re wrong. For some reason they believe that freedom of the press is in better shape there than it is here. They’re wrong. If we take a look at media pluralism, I have to say that Hungary comes out ahead of Germany. If we take a look at the rule of law, I have to say that the rule of law in Hungary is on a par with that in Germany. This is characteristic of large countries, however: the big ones believe that they know better about everything. We must accept this with equanimity.
Provided that one always has equanimity. At any rate, as the Gospel of Matthew says, today has enough troubles of its own. And so in the pandemic one feels that having completed the day’s tasks one has done everything. At the same time, there are long-term projects, such as concluding the Article Seven procedure, which is planned to happen before the end of the German presidency. There’s also migration, which is now not only a security problem, but also a public health problem. And there are China-Europe relations. To what extent are you concerned about the consequences of these very important, long-term issues not being addressed in a timely manner, or not being addressed at all?
In Hungary they’re on the agenda, and so I’m not concerned about that. Whether during the crisis Europe is dealing with these questions at the right pace and in the right depth is another matter. The Germans are trying, so we can’t complain about that: they’re trying to keep these issues on the agenda. But whatever Brussels does, here in Hungary these issues are on the agenda. Recently the Hungarian foreign minister returned from China, and I’ve just visited the V4. So alongside the management of the crisis, we’re also dealing with major, long-term issues. It’s undoubtedly true that there’s a difference – which will remain – between the V4 countries, Central Europe, and Western Europe, say Germany. They have committed themselves to building an open society in which borders are unimportant, and migrants are not only let in, but invited in. They envisage such a mixed world, and they want to live alongside people coming from outside cultures. That is their right, but we don’t want that here in Central Europe. Therefore one can clearly see and feel that a world is continuously coming into being in, say, Berlin and in Germany which is completely different from that in Budapest and Hungary. But this will also be true in the long run, because everyone lives how they want to, and they have the right to live how they want to. So we Hungarians don’t want migrants, we don’t want an open society, and we don’t want to mix with others. We want to remain a Christian, Hungarian civilisation. Naturally we’re happy to listen to anyone coming from a different culture, but the master of this country is the Hungarian nation, which seeks to preserve its nature and character. We don’t want to change this and we shall not change it, even if other countries pursue different paths. In the coming decades Germany and some big Western European countries will follow a pro-migrant path. Therefore the difference between us will visibly increase, but this doesn’t mean that our life isn’t at least as good as theirs, or that our economy can’t be as competitive as theirs. So I believe that we’ve made the right decision, because we’re building a Hungarian world that suits us. We don’t want to put on anyone else’s jacket, but we want a life that builds on Christian, Hungarian traditions – not only for ourselves, but also for our children. And this is what we have the right to.
During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic the key to success was speed. The Hungarian government declared a state of danger on the seventh day after the first recorded infection. By comparison, the same happened in Berlin on day 37, and in Spain on day 45. If maintaining the viability of the economy is at least as important a goal, is there then scope for such rapid decision-making?
It was relevant in the spring. Now I believe we’re more in need of self-confident predictability. I don’t want to make dramatic decisions, and there’s no need for a sudden, radical change of direction; because there’s no eventuality – even a theoretical one – that we haven’t prepared for. We know precisely what to do in the case of scenarios A, B, C and D. Today my message to the citizens of Hungary is not that we’re able to change course, even overnight, but that we have a battle plan. This has chapters, decisions and points, we are proceeding according to it, and if everyone does their job with calm and composure and observes the rules, then we’ll protect the lives of the elderly, the living standards of families won’t fall and Hungary will remain functioning. This is possible. The Government’s battle plan not only provides the chance of this, but a guarantee. At present, however, the essence lies not in speed, but much more in calm, composed and reliable government policy.
Thank you very much, Prime Minister.