Gábor Gönczi: I welcome Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, to the studio. Thank you for joining us here.
We’re recording this interview on 26 September, on Saturday. Prime Minister, this morning we woke up to two very important news stories. One of them was that from Friday up to the early hours of Saturday morning another 950 Hungarian citizens were registered as having been infected with the coronavirus, and the number of deaths increased by twelve. Obviously this is very sad news, and the number of deaths is a daily record for the second wave. The second news item – which is cause for celebration – is that one of the leading international credit rating agencies has upgraded Hungary’s credit rating from “stable” to “positive”. Ordinary people will greet one of these stories with sorrow, and the other with joy. As Prime Minister, how do you see this?
More with sorrow than joy: somehow one can always revive the economy and relaunch growth; but we can’t bring back lives that have been lost. And so I’d like to send my condolences to the bereaved families. An important lesson is that the elderly continue to be at risk. The pandemic is on an upward trajectory. While we could talk about the economy and health care separately, the threat of the pandemic completely overshadows our lives, and the fact is that it’s on an upward trajectory. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I’d like to be very clear: the situation is difficult, both for the healthcare and education systems; but now there’s intense pressure on our hospitals in particular, and this will continue over the coming months.
Let’s begin with health care then. The present defence strategy is completely different from the one during the first wave.
It is, but mostly because...
What is the basis for this?
Yes, but mostly because – and not many people give this full consideration – today we are closer to having a vaccine. So our present defence operation is not only different in that we haven’t had to put the country on standby mode, restrict contacts and bring the country to a halt – in which I think the people did an excellent job, because while the Government directs the defence strategy, the country is operated by the people. And it was no accident that in the spring we were among the top 20 or 25 countries in the world in terms of defence against the virus, because we had to switch to standby mode and reduce face-to-face contacts. The fact that we’re not doing this and are keeping the country functioning is not the only way in which our current defence operation is different from our previous one: it’s also true that in March no one knew when there would be a vaccine. Today I still can’t answer that question you haven’t asked: when there will be a vaccine. But I do know that we’re closer to it. We’re in continuous discussions with the Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese and the Russians. And we’re not only negotiating, but we’ve also made financial contributions to European research programmes supported by the European Union. I’ve just come back from Brussels, where I was yesterday and the day before yesterday, and there they’re now saying that there will be a vaccine sometime in the middle of next year at the latest. But the Americans believe that this is even possible by the end of this year.
This is great news, Prime Minister. We haven’t yet seen this on paper, or…
Well, in the United States presidential campaign …
You’ve brought us this news now.
Yes, this is what the President is talking about in the US presidential campaign. And on Thursday I met the President of the European Commission. During our talks there, we were told that we’re counting on there definitely not being a vaccine any sooner than the middle of next year. The chances aren’t bad though. If I’m not mistaken, the Russian vaccine hasn’t been approved by the WHO yet, so we’re more cautious on that. The Chinese research is encouraging, and the Japanese are also making good progress. So it seems to me that over the course of the next year four or five of the world’s great centres of power will be able to offer humanity a vaccine that will be able to stop the virus.
And then there will be a catharsis, relief and a feeling of freedom. But until then there will be a great deal …
We have to get there first.
That’s right. In the summer the question was how to protect ourselves when a second wave arrived – because we knew that it was coming. This is why we held a national consultation. Because in this battle it’s not only important to have a lot of smart people in the right places – scientists, mathematicians, public administrators – but also to offer people a defence plan which they will accept: not necessarily one that makes them happy or that they agree with, but one to which they’ll say, “We see that it’s necessary, and we’ll help to implement this defence plan”. Therefore we must create points of understanding. Put slightly emotionally, we could also call this national unity. National consultations serve precisely this purpose, and using them I’ve been able to infer what the people want. They’re clearly saying that they want defence, but they don’t want the country to shut down again. So, as I’m in the habit of saying, the conclusion is that the country – Hungary – must continue functioning: the Government should find a solution for protecting the elderly, and for keeping schools open and life functioning normally. What people are asking for isn’t easy to provide: it’s a very difficult task. But if healthcare workers – because they hold the key to this situation – stay the course, provide the solution in their work and can cope with the ever increasing psychological pressure facing us in the coming months, then this will be possible. Then we can do this: we will succeed, as we did in the spring.
In return we promised to observe the rules. Are we observing the rules?
The summer is a great tempter, or procuress. This one was no exception. But the autumn will help, because it will cool the general mood, and people will be much readier to observe the rules than they were in the summer. There are three simple rules, hygiene rules: handwashing; mask-wearing in enclosed spaces; and keeping at a distance from one another – at least as far apart as we are now.
What people are most interested in is whether they will be safe if they have a problem. What does safety mean? Will there be hospital beds for us? Will there be medicine? If the problem takes a turn for the worse, will there be a free ventilator? Will there be someone who knows how to operate it?
I’ve been touring hospitals, so I have first-hand experience enabling me to answer your question and inform people. The answer is yes, there will be. It’s difficult – very difficult – for doctors and nurses, but everywhere there are doctors and nurses. Naturally everywhere we would like to have more, that would be good. But we also have enough equipment everywhere: hospital beds, protective equipment and ventilators. The most difficult aspect is people. In a situation like this, we must redeploy people – or, to put it more mildly, reallocate them. This doesn’t really please anyone: either those required to relocate from one city to another for a few months, or those receiving them – because although of course they’re happy to have new people on board, those new people don’t know the place and must be inducted. So this is all extra work. I understand that this kind of redeployment or reallocation will never be popular, but such transfers are the only way we have of keeping the healthcare system functioning. This is because our defence system is graduated. We have designated the first eight pandemic hospitals. We’re taking patients there now. If they reach full capacity, then the second phase will start. If those second-tier hospitals reach full capacity, there will be a third phase. Doctors and nurses will have to be sent where they’re needed at any one time. This is the most arduous part of their job, and so I’m grateful to them. I believe I’m speaking for everyone when I say that we owe healthcare workers a debt of gratitude for committing to all this.
Prime Minister, you mentioned earlier that we can regard Austria as a kind of experimental laboratory: what has worked there will also work for us; and what has happened there will also happen here. Is there such a country now that we should closely follow? Or does Austria still play this role?
Austria still plays that role, but the world doesn’t end at Austria’s borders. We more or less understand what’s happening in the region: I see what’s happening in Ukraine and Romania, and I understand why things are the way they are; we follow what’s happening in Austria, because we think that what happens in Austria will happen a little later in Hungary. The only place that I don’t quite understand is the Czech Republic, where the situation has got out of hand, and numbers are somehow going off the chart. We must pay attention to this, as the Czechs come over to the Slovaks, and the Slovaks are allowed to come to Hungary: cross-border movement is allowed, even if only for business. And so we must always keep an eye on the Czechs – partly because they’re an intelligent people who are somewhat more developed than we are, and now something has happened there which we must protect ourselves against. I think border closure continues to remain important; because while it’s true that the virus is creating destruction from within the country as we pass it to one another, the virus’s supply lines are at the border, and that’s where they must be severed.
Let’s talk a little about the economy. At the beginning of the interview we mentioned that a credit rating agency has made a decision that’s highly favourable for us. This is proof that the path we’re following is good. But it’s not easy.
How will we be able to defend all this later on, as we continue?
There are three ways. As people are mostly employed by businesses, one way is that we must help businesses in providing jobs: tax reductions, investment, development. This is our policy. If all else fails, the second way is for the state to employ people. This solution isn’t as good, but it still provides incomes and a chance for families. The third option is public works: the conventional system of public works schemes. In terms of pay and quality of work this is very far from being desirable, but for want of an alternative it is still better than nothing. Incidentally, in the course of next year it will be essential to increase wages in the public works system. So we have the means at our disposal. We’re unable to precisely uncover every economic interrelationship, but, through some divine intervention, the facts and figures available to us show that in Hungary there are more people in work now than there were in January – in fact, there are more people in work now than there were in March. The latest figure I’ve seen – and analyses support this – is that in Hungary more than 4.5 million people are in employment. This figure of 4.5 million is a milestone. Ten years ago, when we took over the reins of government from the Socialists, around 3.6 to 3.7 million people were in work. The first milestone was four million. Many people refused to believe that employment could be pushed that high. It happened. But now we’ve surpassed that, the new truly magical milestone or frontier is 4.5 million; and now we’ve surpassed that. And I also have a vision of a Hungary with five million people in work. But that is not a task for the next few months.
Yes, Prime Minister, this is just what you promised at the time: to create as many jobs as the virus destroys.
Well, there are two promises I can be held to account for: one is that we will resurrect or create as many jobs as are eliminated by the virus; the other is a promise from ten years ago, when I said that we will create one million jobs within ten years. We were making good progress on this, having reached around eight or nine hundred thousand, but the virus has slowed us down. Nevertheless we’ve regained our momentum.
What’s the biggest problem now in the area of employment?
Well, now the real question is whether businesses will be able to create new jobs which are more competitive than the present ones. Because what’s happening in the world today is not – as many believe – that, say in March or April, workplaces around the world were closed down and now the same ones are reopening. What’s happening is that workplaces were closed down in some places, but now – provided there’s demand for the products – others are being opened elsewhere. Plants will be opened and plants will be relocated to places where production can be most competitive. If a plant was closed down in France or Germany, say, this doesn’t mean that it will be reopened in the same place; in the meantime it might be moved somewhere else – say to Hungary or Poland. But by the same token the risk is that we can’t be sure that a workplace that was closed down in Hungary won’t be reopened somewhere else. If we’re not competitive enough, if regulations aren’t good enough, if taxes aren’t low enough, if our workers aren’t good enough, that plant will be relocated and opened somewhere else. So around the world now labour and production capacities are being relocated and reorganised. This is a race we must enter, and it is [Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade] Péter Szijjártó’s task to enter us in this race and ensure that we perform well in it. He’s energetic, as you can see for yourself, and I think the chances are good.
Our strategy – the Government’s strategy – is that the healthcare defence operation is the task of the healthcare operational group, led by [Minister of Interior] Sándor Pintér, with medical support from Minister [of Human Capacities] Kásler. We’ve entrusted the protection of the economy to the economy protection operational group, which is led by [Minister of Finance] Mihály Varga. Then there’s the task of “overtaking on the bend”: gaining a competitive edge in the crisis. The job of finding a way through the crisis, finding opportunities and turning them to our advantage is being led by Péter Szijjártó.
Prime Minister, I’m a lad from Pest. As I travel around the country, I see that in a lot of places life has almost returned to normal. The summer was splendid, on Lake Balaton, for example. I didn’t see this in Budapest, however. Obviously this caused us some pain, because we don’t see the same life.
It will be a while before you do. There’s a simple reason for this. The capital’s business model, primarily in tourism and catering, relies on foreigners. I’ve seen analyses showing that 93 per cent of people booking hotel rooms in Budapest are from abroad. In Paris this number is around 50 or 60 per cent, and it’s the same in Rome. The rest are domestic tourists. So Budapest doesn’t have a business model which attracts Hungarians to Budapest and encourages them to spend a weekend here. Unquestionably this business model must be changed, even when life returns to normal, because we can’t just stand on one leg: the leg of demand generated by foreigners. Hungarians must also come here to Budapest, and they, too, must become participants in Hungarian tourism, in Budapest tourism and hospitality.
And is there a good short-term idea for this?
We have left a lot of money with Budapest businesses as well. Nowhere in the world have I seen such an example of the strong solidarity that we created. With the debt repayment moratorium – giving people the option of not having to pay, of deferring loan repayment instalments – we’ve left some two thousand billion forints with families and businesses. This has been a great help to everyone. We’ve reduced taxes for businesses. So I believe that both in Budapest and elsewhere the Government has done everything it could have done. But some assistance in this wouldn’t harm. So I’m pushing for the introduction of special rules, for example on the costs to restaurants of renting terraces. There are several special Budapest rules, and in this way businesses could be given some help. I’ve seen the recommendations of the Budapest Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I think that’s a direction worth following.
Prime Minister, let me ask you a personal question. The past seven months have been terrible. I think we can all agree that this is not the world at its best, this is not how we want the world to be. How have you borne this period as a father, a grandfather and a son? Thinking back to being at home, during the lockdown, for example, what can you say to elderly family members and to the youngest?
Well, if this question relates to me personally, I was worried in March and April. Right at the beginning I saw that it is mostly the elderly who are at risk, because international studies and doctors made that clear. My grandmother is 99 and my father will soon turn 80, so I had loved ones to worry about. But as the enemy was unknown, and we didn’t know the virus, what I really focused on was whether at some point it might turn out that not only the elderly were in danger, but also our children – because that would have been a disaster. If this virus had been a direct threat not only to the elderly but also our children, as a family man it would have been very difficult emotionally for me – although I wouldn’t have panicked, because my job rules that out. Isolating and separating in some way the care and protection of the elderly is possible, but children are like jumping beans, and for them it would be very difficult. So I was concerned that the virus might also be a threat to children. So far there hasn’t been any mutation that would present a particular danger to our children, and so while I can’t exactly sit back and relax, emotionally this is an easier situation for family men like me. On the whole, I can say that the time will come when we finally escape from this situation: there will be a vaccine, we’ll arrange it so that Hungary has access to the vaccine, and we’ll ensure that everyone who wants it has access to it when needed. We’ll find a way out of this miserable situation. Until then we shall cope with this: the healthcare system will work, the economy will work, and we will not retreat; we will preserve the prospect of Hungary emerging from the crisis in a stronger position. We have done this once before, and we shall succeed again. I’m convinced of this. One thing is important: to look out for one another until that time.
Prime Minister, thank you for joining us here.