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Mar 25, 2020

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s address to the Hungarian parliament before the start of daily business

23 March 2020, Budapest

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Honourable Speaker, Honourable Fellow Members of Parliament,

I’ve asked to speak because twelve days ago we declared a “state of danger” in Hungary. We did so because a virus originating from Asia had reached Europe, and had also appeared in Hungary. This infection started in Asia, but was also transported into Europe. But in this day and age, when economies and societies across the world are so intertwined, this was hardly avoidable. At present there is no vaccine for this virus, although across the world a determined search is under way. In Germany alone there are 47 vaccine development projects in progress. Hungary has widely recognised medical experts who are part of the international community of scientists and researchers; and through them we Hungarians are also contributing to this great joint effort by humanity. This task force is led by Professor Ferenc Jakab. Today, however, we have to say that despite the combined efforts of the whole of humanity, no vaccine providing immunity against the virus will be available in the near future. Instead of waiting for a vaccine, we Hungarians decided to commit ourselves to the fight against the spread of the virus. Even if we cannot eliminate it, we will at least slow its spread. We are studying the measures enacted by other countries, and I see that different countries are adopting different decisions: each country has given its own national response to the crisis. If we carried on as normal in Hungary we wouldn’t be able to organise collective self-defence and repel this attack together. With the rules which we follow in normal times of peace it would not be possible to organise a collective defence effort, to slow the rate of infection, to protect those of our compatriots who are most at risk, to maintain adequate care, to alleviate the economic consequences and to relaunch a paralysed economy. 

Honourable Fellow Parliamentarians,

Changing our lives is now inevitable. Everyone must leave their comfort zones. For a while we will have to work differently, we will have to behave differently, and we will all have to organise our lives differently. This is why we introduced a special legal order for a state of danger and its extraordinary circumstances. This new legal order grants the Government authorisation – and also provides it with the means – to organise Hungary’s self-defence. 

In this address I’d now like to report to my fellow Members of Parliament on our progress so far in the organisation of this collective defence. We have organised our defences on four fronts, Hungary must hold the line in four theatres of operations at once: military defence, police defence, healthcare defence and economic defence. We also knew and know that there are three stages to the spread of the virus, and the defence effort must also be adjusted to these. After the stage of isolated infections, we have moved to the stage of localised community transmission, and the numbers indicate that we’re now rapidly approaching the mass infection stage. As of this morning there had been 167 confirmed cases of infection in Hungary. Let me emphasise that these are confirmed cases. This means viral infection confirmed on the basis of tests conducted under laboratory conditions. Naturally it’s important to know the true number of people carrying the coronavirus, but this is something we can only estimate. I’ve asked the country’s best mathematicians, virologists and also Semmelweis University to prepare estimates.These have been completed, but they’re not yet certain enough to make them public. So I’ve asked them to continue the work. As case numbers rise their estimates will obviously become increasingly accurate, but I don’t think it will surprise anyone when I say that the current estimated figures are much higher than the 167 cases that have been identified and confirmed so far. I also wish to inform you that 108 of the 167 confirmed infections are people who are so-called “carriers”: who are infected with the virus but have no symptoms. In everyday language, in our words, this means that they’re not ill. They’re infected, they’re carrying the virus, but they themselves are not ill, and we hope that most of them won’t be. Twenty-seven of the 167 confirmed cases are displaying symptoms, meaning that they’re ill. There’s a high probability that they’ll recover without the need for hospital treatment. And of these 167 cases of infection, there are nine of our compatriots who are very ill. They need intensive care in hospital, and we must root for their recovery.They can recover, but now they’re in grave danger. And, Honourable House, we also have seven deaths. We feel for their families, and are praying for them. We should also bear in mind that five of these seven people had cardiovascular diseases or diabetes, there was one cancer patient among them, and the other suffered from disease of the colon. The average age of the seven people who have died was 69. Everyone can see that we have good reason to focus our defence effort on the elderly.

Honourable House,

On the healthcare line of defence operations, at present Hungary has the following resources and supplies. Medical face masks: 1.5 million. We have been making 25,000 a day, and if everything goes well we could increase our production to 80,000 a day. We have 129,000 special face masks, 20 million pairs of medical gloves and 170,000 protective gowns. There are 2,560 ventilators at our disposal. This is the situation today. We’ve sent scouts and emissaries to every part of the world, to all points of the compass, and business people and diplomats are hard at work. The news is that today everywhere in the West there is a shortage of supplies, and assistance can only be found in the East. There we have reserved enormous amounts, consignments are arriving on a continuous basis, and more than ten planes are being used for this. I’m only informing you about the numbers that we can be certain of, however, because these supplies have already arrived in Hungary and are safely in our possession; the rest is uncertain. As regards hospital capacity, in Hungary we have 66,906 hospital beds in total, and in a worst-case scenario we can also install 252 military hospital beds.We will install them. We have 19,431 doctors under the age of 65 and 4,312 residents who can be called up. If we think that they should be called up – and if necessary I think we should do – there are 900 final-year medical students. This gives a total of 24,643 people who can be deployed on medical service. We have other healthcare professionals in Hungary who have received training for some form of healthcare work, and counting those under the age of65 there are 105,000 of them. One needs to bear in mind that there are various records, from the databases of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, the State Treasury and the National Centre for Public Health. We have now collated these to arrive at the figures I’ve just told you, based on which we have also prepared a battle plan. We can order the quantity of supplies that can be used at any particular time on the basis of a review of the available supplies, the number of healthcare workers ready to be mobilised, and the anticipated number of patients. This morning the Operational Group adopted the following decisions. From tomorrow morning, all doctors working in intensive care units will receive special face masks; all healthcare workers in intensive care units will also receive special face masks. Other hospital doctors and nursing staff in non-intensive care units will receive surgical masks. Patients taken to hospital who are suspected as having been infected with the coronavirus will also immediately receive surgical masks. I approved this decision of the Operational Group, implementation has begun, and I hope that these supplies will be available in all hospitals tomorrow morning. I asked the Operational Group to manage supplies in a disciplined and rational manner, because this defence period will be a long one, a great many supplies will be required, and we’re still only at the very beginning. I thank healthcare workers for their efforts so far; they have earned the admiration of us all. Thank you, we are grateful to you. I ask them to observe the instructions on working arrangements and deployment. This is where we stand on the healthcare front. 

As regards the police defence effort, the police have closed the borders to the movement of people. The only people allowed to enter the country are Hungarians and those who have received special permission. Goods traffic continues to be permitted. At our borders we are stopping all non-Hungarian nationals trying to return to their home countries through Hungary. We have created special rules for them in the interest of safety: between specified times they are allowed to transit Hungary under supervision along designated humanitarian corridors. Even in such difficult circumstances the moral imperative of humanity remains a guiding principle. We want our neighbours to be our friends, and so they can count on us now, too. If we fight together now, later we may become brothers in arms. I’ve asked the Romanians for guarantees that they let people into their country from Hungary at the same rate as people heading south towards Romania are allowed to cross the Austrian-Hungarian border. Our police officers have been successfully operating this “airlock” arrangement. 

Honourable House,

Day by day our police officers’ tasks are multiplying, and in parallel with the worsening situation they must take control of an increasing number of areas. Therefore in order to be able to maintain public order they must continuously increase their capabilities. In this department the situation is as follows. In Hungary we have 70,275 uniformed officers and non-commissioned officers under the age of 65 available for service. We also have 46,573 volunteers – such as neighbourhood watch personnel and others – who, in a worst-case scenario, will be able to carry out law enforcement duties. It is true that they’re not armed, but they’re experienced and have a certain degree of discipline and organisation, meaning that they can be deployed. 

As regards our military defence effort, soldiers are now playing a more active role in border control. It is now the duty of the defence forces to prepare for cooperation with the police in the event that they are required to carry out street patrols. And they’re also prepared for the eventuality of vital companies in Hungary needing assistance, as their operations must be maintained without disruption. I’ve assigned operational military control units to all such companies. The situation in terms of our military resources is as follows: 23,950 career soldiers; 9,381 reservists; and 10,649 officers who were discharged in the past five years, meaning that they have memories and capabilities which can be deployed. This represents a military force with a combined total of 43,980. So I can tell the Honourable House that today in Hungary the total number of people available for law enforcement purposes stands at 139,684. If there is a problem, these are the resources at our disposal.

Honourable House,

The coronavirus epidemic is principally a threat to human life, but the global pandemic also has very grave economic consequences. The entire economy is in trouble – but not all parts of it at the same time. There are economic sectors such as tourism, catering and services where problems are already apparent. We’ve set up a separate task force under the leadership of Minister Andrea Mager, the duty of which is to consult with representatives of the distressed sectors, and to make recommendations. As jobs are at risk, I’ve asked her to concentrate primarily on protecting jobs.We’ve consulted with the most important employers and economic players already in distress, and we’ve designed the first action plan to deal with the economic consequences of the coronavirus epidemic. The global economy, and within it the Hungarian economy, will slow down – or even, according to many, come to a halt. Therefore the first action plan’s mission is to contain this slowing down. This will be followed by others, because decisions will also be needed in order to relaunch the economy. The last time I spoke here before you was on Monday. Since then we have adopted decisions on the economic action plan, and published them on Wednesday. As they were not announced here, however, I shall also relate them now to the Honourable House.

The first step in the action plan is a moratorium on payments extending to the end of the year. This decision of ours will result in Hungarian families and Hungarian businesses saving some 3,000 billion forints. This is how much they would have paid to banks up until the end of the year. This is an enormous sum, which represents assistance to both Hungarian families and businesses. As we see it, this measure is one that protects both families and the economy: it helps businesses to sustain themselves and preserve the majority of jobs; and at the same time in these difficult months it helps families to avoid immediately using up their savings. Everyone will gain breathing space.We’ve obliged banks to suspend all unilateral deductions from accounts. This applies to all debt owed to banks and financial institutions – consumer, car and home loans alike. This category also includes student loans and “baby-planning loans” which have already been taken out. This will be automatic, and borrowers will not need to submit a request. Only those who want to continue debt repayments will need to contact their banks. I can tell the Honourable House that banks will not be left without support: the National Bank of Hungary will provide them with the liquidity they need this year. I can see that the conditions for safe banking operations are guaranteed. I know that it will be difficult for financial institutions, for banks as well; but I ask them to understand that in this situation they, too, must help, and I ask them to cooperate with us.

Honourable House,

We have also given assistance to sectors which quickly – or immediately – found themselves in trouble. Tourism and catering have effectively hit the canvas, prospects for the entertainment industry are extremely bleak, and taxi drivers are also losing out. We are giving them major tax breaks. Companies in the tourism, catering, entertainment and sports services industries will see suspension of their obligations to pay contributions. This means that they will not be required to pay contributions in relation to their employees. We hope that as a result we can perhaps save some jobs. This was our first action plan last Wednesday.

This morning we adopted further decisions. These are the following. We supplemented the measures I’ve just mentioned with six further ones. Firstly, 81,480 small businesses will be joining taxi drivers in being exempt – until 30 June – from payment of the flat-rate Small Business Tax [KATA]. This category includes hairdressers, beauticians, painters and decorators, glaziers, electricians, certain healthcare service providers, performing artists, plumbers, gas and heating technicians, carpenters, those working in outpatient care, floor and wall tilers, people working in fitness and other sporting activities, and those catering for the needs of the elderly and people living with disabilities.This is a long list, and I’ve only mentioned a few occupational groups; the details will be contained in a decree being released this evening. Secondly, we are authorising the deferment of payment obligations on unpaid Small Business Tax incurred before 1 March; taxpayers in arrears with such payments will be required to pay them in the quarter following the end of the state of danger. Thirdly, due to their reduced advertising revenues, Hungarian media providers will be granted exemptions similar to those in tourism and catering.Fourthly, in consultation with the Chamber of Bailiffs, we are declaring a moratorium on evictions and confiscations. Fifthly, we are also suspending tax-related distraint actions; existing tax debts will only need to be paid after the end of the state of danger. Sixthly, we will extend the various maternity entitlements expiring during the state of danger, and will maintain mothers in their present status for the duration of the state of danger.

Honourable House,

The most important consideration now is protection of people’s jobs, and helping those who lose their jobs to find new ones as soon as possible. We’ve already done this before: after 2010, when we inherited a level of employment in the hundreds of thousands. We managed it then, and we shall also recover now.

Honourable House, Honourable Fellow Members of Parliament,

The period ahead will be difficult, and will demand effort from everyone. It is worth making these efforts because we can literally save lives, and the higher the number of people taking part in this cooperation, the higher the number of people’s lives we can save. We face a task that no one can complete on their own: everyone shares responsibility, everyone must make their own contributions, andeveryone must do what they can. The time has come for dissent and dispute to be replaced by joint action, regardless of party affiliation. This is what I also ask of my fellow parliamentarians.

Thank you for your attention.