Katalin Nagy: The number of new infections is around 10,000 a day, 6,000 people are in hospital and 600 are on ventilators; but experts believe that the pandemic wave will continue to rise, and so we’re not yet at the peak. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Good morning. It was to be expected that the Government would announce restrictions, but will this be enough?
Good morning. We hope so. Of course, in advance you can never know precisely. One thing is for sure: all the virologists say we’re up to our necks in the fourth wave, and that the hard part is still ahead of us. So we haven’t reached the peak, that’s still to come, and the numbers will rise. Anyone can catch the virus, but the consequences vary. What we can clearly see is that those who aren’t vaccinated are at risk of dying. So we’re getting shocking, tragic news that puts whole families in impossible situations: the head of the family dies, the mother is between life and death, the children are seriously ill, and they aren’t vaccinated. I don’t like to use the word “irresponsible”, because everyone should take responsibility for themselves, but there’s more to it than that: everyone who isn’t vaccinated is a danger not only to themselves, but also to others – to all of us. So virologists also agree that protective measures won’t shield us from the virus, but only slow down the speed at which the pandemic spreads. The only thing that will protect us is vaccination. And we’re now also seeing – at least the experts agree on this – that the vaccine’s protective power weakens 4 to 6 months after the second vaccination, and so a third vaccination is justified. All I can say is that I’ve taken my third vaccine after the second. I haven’t caught this virus yet, and if I do, I hope it won’t knock me off my feet. Virologists are adamant that the level of immunity after the third vaccination is much higher than that after the second – and certainly much higher than if one hasn’t been vaccinated at all. I don’t make a habit of criticising anti-vaccinationists, because I understand that everyone has the right to make their own decisions about their own lives on the basis of their personal freedom. But all I can say now is that the source of the problem is that we still haven’t vaccinated everyone. If everyone were vaccinated, there wouldn’t be a fourth wave – or if there were, it would be more of a ripple than a wave. And if everyone were vaccinated then there wouldn’t be a fifth wave. In the end we won’t be able to avoid everyone getting vaccinated; but if we could do it in one step, everyone would be protected sooner, people wouldn’t die, and people wouldn’t fall ill. So when unvaccinated people delay getting the vaccine, they’re also dragging out and prolonging the pandemic. But in the end, everyone will need to be vaccinated, with even anti-vaccinationists realising that they will either get vaccinated or die. So I urge everyone to take this opportunity. We’re organising a vaccination drive next week, when people can get their third – or second – vaccination without registration or an appointment, at 101 vaccination points, every day from 7a.m. to 7 p.m.
Does experience show that such campaign weeks increase vaccination uptake? I’m asking because they require double or three times the number of health workers or administrative staff.
I don’t really see any other solution. I repeat: six million people have been vaccinated. We can disregard children for the moment – although we expect that around December there will be a virological, infectological or medical position finally deciding on whether it should be possible to vaccinate children between the ages of 5 and 12 years of age. For the time being, the world – and here I’m not just talking about Hungarian scientists, but the world – is undecided on this question. So we’ll have an opportunity then, and if we get a positive answer, then parents will have the opportunity to vaccinate their children aged between 5 and 12. So we have a population of ten million people, we subtract the children, and six million people are vaccinated. Everyone else, everyone who isn’t in that six million, is in immediate danger of dying. In the end there will be no alternative to everyone being vaccinated. But the thing is that you can’t have police officers taking people to vaccination centres. So in the end the only thing that will help will be people’s acceptance of the facts. We’ve got to convince the anti-vaccinationists that we’re routinely vaccinated against mumps, against measles, against chickenpox, and we’re vaccinated against a lot of deadly diseases. We don’t even catch them, and that’s why we’re alive. I don’t always unconditionally believe scientific statements, because it takes time to prove the truth of a scientific claim, and sometimes that doesn’t take just a year or two, but several decades. So science isn’t a religion or God, to be trusted and believed in unconditionally. And yet when it comes to vaccination, science has proven effective: of the ten million people in Hungary, many millions, many hundreds of thousands of us wouldn’t be alive today if we hadn’t received these vaccinations as children. There’s no reason for us to be any more distrustful of vaccination now than we are of the vaccines that our children receive. Vaccines save lives, and this is also true for the coronavirus vaccine.
Is there enough vaccine? Because yesterday a left-wing news portal published an alarming report that there wouldn’t be enough “modern vaccines”.
We have ten million vaccines, so we can vaccinate everyone not just a third time, but a fourth time. These scaremongering campaigns have been going on all through the pandemic, with fake videos and so on, but now the impact is weaker. Everyone in Hungary can see that the public administration system organising the vaccinations is superbly professional, and so we salute them. Everyone can also see that the doctors and nurses are really fulfilling their medical oaths, putting all their life into their work when needed, making themselves available and vaccinating day and night. Our paramedics have always been fantastic, and the system is working. And when we recruit the police and the military to help in organisation, the feedback from everywhere is that people are grateful, satisfied, and that vaccination is well organised. We have vaccines, we have the necessary protective equipment, and we have therapeutics. We have experience, because we’ve had our second and third waves, which were stressful. In management, we have a full dossier by the end of each wave that we keep for future reference. We know what we have to do on which day if another wave comes, and this is the case now. Our weakest point is always the question of how many people will be available, how many specialists we have; but we know where they are, whether they need to be relocated, where they have to be relocated from, and what kind of work schedule we need to set up. Now, for example, we’ve reintroduced an earlier rule, banning employment contract terminations in law enforcement and the health service. No one is happy about this, because some people would have liked to change jobs or leave, but there are situations and conditions in which they have to admit that this isn’t possible, that it isn’t possible to leave certain professions at this time. So we have a schedule, we have experience, and on this basis we’re taking the decisions that the situation requires.
Can the pandemic hospital in Kiskunhalas be reopened if needed?
It’s an excellent pandemic hospital, and I’ve been there myself several times. If it’s needed, yes. The decision has been taken that the pandemic hospital in Kiskunhalas will be a priority pandemic hospital. So if it’s necessary we won’t open it within the normal county hospital administration system, but we’ll open it if there’s a major emergency or if there’s a surge of patients in one of the hospitals in any part of the country. And we’ll transfer doctors from the county care system or draw doctors from the surrounding counties’ care systems, letting them stay where they are, but bringing them under central control. We can launch its operation any morning, as we need it – even tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. But we don’t need it just now, because part of the defence operation – just as in the second and third waves – is that we know exactly how many beds we have, and now we have more than twice as many beds as we need. If these beds start to fill up, then we know which medical interventions in hospitals can be postponed, and how much and how quickly that can be done. So the experience we gained in previous waves is now proving to be of great help to us.
From this week the Government has frozen the price of petrol, at a maximum of 480 forints per litre. Before this decision, the Left had been calling for some kind of solution, and now that the Government has taken this decision, they’re saying that it’s anti-market. What do you think of this?
This is an old chestnut. We’re fighting a political battle with the Left on the issue of mandated reductions in household utility prices – including, of course, water, gas, electricity and district heating. This has now been supplemented by the issue of petrol prices. Up until now I think that it was right for us to leave determination of the price of petrol to the market, because it’s good that supply, demand and price should develop according to the natural order of things. Normally there’s a business logic to the price that you have to pay, because this guarantees that there will be petrol, that everyone involved in the production and sale of petrol will find their own profit, and that people will have access to petrol. So it’s best if the Government doesn’t have to intervene. But there are situations when you need to. You can’t just stand idly by and watch prices suddenly go through the roof, and then when the dust settles realise that they won’t come back down the next day. Because we can stand it if the price spikes for a day or two. But if there’s a situation in which all the experts agree that prices will remain high for several weeks, perhaps even for a month or two, then we have to react. The problem with fuel prices is that they not only increase the cost of running vehicles, but are also built into other prices: goods need to be transported, land needs to be cultivated, food needs to be processed; all this requires energy and machinery, and then prices will start to rise. So even if you don’t have a car, the high price of petrol will come knocking on your door. So we had to take action. There was a discussion – as at times like this there’s always a discussion among our experts – about when to take action, how much to take and how quickly. In such cases I usually say that one shouldn’t be too cautious: if there’s an emergency situation, one shouldn’t be cautious, but, like a surgeon, one should pick up one’s scalpel and operate. And I’ve looked at who was doing what – I mean in Western Europe. And I see that everyone is very cautious about this, because they don’t like to interfere in the market. The only country that has done something similar is Croatia, but they’ve frozen prices for one month and not three, and they’ve frozen them at somewhere around 530 forints per litre. My attitude was that if we were going to cut the price, we should cut it properly; so we decided to calculate what the operators could bear – no trader would be happy, but what they could bear. And on the basis of the experts’ calculations, we saw that we could take the decision to cut it to 480 forints. And that’s the point at which we put the brakes on. This will be the case for three months. Of course a political debate immediately flared up. The Left in Hungary has always been against cuts in household energy bills, always demanding market prices. We’re saying that market prices should not apply to existential household costs, but there should be a fixed price. And for petrol, if the market cannot solve our problems, then we should solve them ourselves by intervention – knowing that this can only be a temporary intervention. We’re keeping this until February, so we’ve ordered it for three months. At that point we’ll see what the situation is, we’ll extend it if we need to, and if we don’t need to, we’ll forget about it. It can be sold for less than 480 forints per litre, but not more. On such occasions we also conduct surveys, so I don’t think it’s a big secret that we try to collect people’s opinions immediately after a riskier decision. We’ve also done this here, and well over 80 per cent of people support this measure. Those on the Left don’t support it yet, but I wish we could have 80 per cent national unity on every issue.
In many cases, the Left considers the regulation of household utility prices as a populist charade. But now there’s also a new development, which Gergely Gulyás spoke about at the weekly government briefing [kormányinfó]: the Government is also trying to help small businesses by enabling them avoid paying market prices for utilities.
We’ve been working on this for days – or weeks now. This is an even more difficult question, the question of how we can protect families. I don’t want to bore the listeners with technicalities, but perhaps it’s good for them to understand this. So the way we’re protecting families from higher utility prices is that we’ve created a pricing system that’s different from the market price. We call this “universal service”. Households are included in it, and others who apply for it can be included – local governments, for example, are now transferring to it. But this has not been open to businesses. As energy is cheaper in the universal service system, when it comes to opening up this possibility for small businesses we’re now calculating, analysing and discussing how much they stand to gain, how much those who produce, transport and distribute energy stand to lose, and whether the latter can withstand that loss. We’re very close to a decision, so we’ll decide early next week. I think it makes sense to relieve small businesses of the burden of higher overheads. Big companies can cope, but not small ones.
Aren’t you afraid that Brussels won’t like this petrol price freeze? Or has Brussels now accepted that the European Court has ruled in favour of Hungary on regulated prices? It’s true that it took years, but a decision has finally been made.
The fact is that the utility price reductions have caused the Brussels bureaucracy to spew blood. So whenever they hear or read about them, they really throw their toys out of their prams. They’re not used to this. I can tell you frankly that in Brussels it’s the multinationals that dictate the rules. So over there in Brussels decisions in which money is taken from the multinationals and given to the people or distributed among the people are as rare as white ravens. It’s obvious that when there’s a reduction in energy or fuel prices we’re taking profits from the multinationals and passing them on to the people through price reductions. That’s the truth. The Left has always been on the side of the multinationals. So in Hungarian politics we sometimes frame the debate in terms of who is on whose side. The Government is on the side of the people, and the Left is on the side of the multinationals. Of course your younger listeners – such a happy generation they are – won’t remember this, but before 2010 the prices of electricity and gas were two or three times higher. This was despite the fact that they promised never to raise them – but then that was exactly what happened. Yet when we make a decision like this, the screens light up, doors are kicked in, voices are raised, and multinationals’ friendly journalists are brought in to launch a media campaign. The multinationals start defending their interests – presenting them, of course, as if they were the public interest. So this is the nature of this debate. And I think that the Left is making a mistake here, because it isn’t taking the side of the people, but the side of the multinationals – who then take their profits out of the country. I don’t begrudge anyone their profits: let them make a fair profit and enjoy the fruits of their labour. But when trouble strikes, they too must bear part of the burden. One cannot deal with crises by making ordinary people pay the price: one has to involve the banks and the energy companies, just as we’ve always done since 2010.
But if it’s so obvious, and this survey you mentioned shows that 80 per cent or more of people think that the petrol price freeze is the right thing to do, then why does the Left always side with the multinationals? Why do they say that the cuts in energy prices are a publicity stunt or unsustainable?
There are two explanations: on the one hand, they’re under external pressure; or on the other hand they’re just making continual efforts. They hope that this time they’ll be proved right, and to them that seems intellectually viable. To be honest, I’ve been in this profession a long time, so I know what phrases turn out to be political suicide weapons – what ones should never have been said, for the good of those who said them. Just one of the classics was, “We lied morning, noon and night”. But what I hear from the Left now, for example, is that we need to cut our utility bills by using less water, less electricity and less gas. When one hears something like this there’s a word one uses in Hungarian, but avoids saying it out loud, out of respect for mothers. And then they say that the price of petrol is high, so let’s use our cars less, and let’s drive with more people in each car. Great! People have an opinion about that, too. So I don’t think these are good things. I understand that politics involves fighting and criticising the Government, but I think there are some points on which this doesn’t need to be the case, and – like this – on which we could even agree.
GDP in the third quarter was a little weaker than expected. Nevertheless, in the budget will the Government pay the entire thirteenth month’s pension in one lump sum, and not just two weeks of it, as was originally planned?
The thirteenth month’s pension will be included in next year’s budget. Economic growth in this year’s third quarter was strong, but weaker than expected, jeopardising the plans we set for this year. When we saw that things would go well in 2021 there was a major debate among experts about what to do with the surplus revenue. In such situations everyone comes up with their own ideas, every ministry mostly has ideas that are relevant to its own area, and the various interest groups have ideas that would best serve their interests. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in the end we were faced with the fact that the pandemic waves of 2021 have hit families the hardest. In Hungary I think there’s a consensus on that. And we’ve said that if there’s capacity in the budget, we’ll give families back the tax they paid in 2021. So that’s what we’re talking about here. If there’s no growth, we can’t do this. And then there was a debate about how much growth there would be. In general – and now too – I’m one of the cautious firebrands. It’s all very well to be bold and courageous, but in this world there’s also such a thing as responsibility. I said that if we could get the numbers up to 5.5 per cent growth, if at that level we can give back the income tax paid by those with families, then let’s set the growth rate at 5.5 per cent and commit to that. Others said the figure should be higher than that. And it seems to me that 5.5 per cent will certainly be met. In fact it will probably be above 6 and closer to 7, but lower than the most optimistic expectations had indicated. What’s the reason for this? The reason is that the production of some products in the world is organised globally. Let’s take the example of a car: the microchips are made in Taiwan; the battery in another country; the gearbox in a fourth country; the engine in a fifth; the chassis in a sixth; the components are assembled in a suitable place, put together, and you have a car. Now if any one of those elements is missing for whatever reason, they can’t deliver it – or they can’t deliver it on time – and the whole show comes to a halt. And the pandemic has shaken supply chains distributed over long geographic distances, because where there was a problem, they shut down the plant and they couldn’t work. But now, with the world emerging from the pandemic, suddenly there’s a lot of demand, because everybody wants to produce more after the pandemic. And that demand can’t be met. Now there’s a shortage of microchips, and this is mainly affecting the car industry, car factories. This is why car plants in Hungary, which could be running two or three shifts, are sometimes running only one shift. And this is showing up in our economic performance. There are other reasons too, but that’s the main reason for the growth being lower than previously hoped for. We had been talking about 8 to 9 per cent, and so now everyone sees the fact that we’re around 6.5 to 7 per cent as being a setback. Yet compared with minus 5 per cent last year, plus 6 or 7 is a huge achievement. But we need to acknowledge that it could have been better if these global supply chains had worked. So it wasn’t the Hungarian economy that prevented us from achieving growth of 7 to 8 per cent – or even 10 per cent – this year, but the way in which the global economy operated. At other times it’s been an advantage, but now it was a disadvantage.
Economists say that benefits such as exemption from income tax for young people in work, income tax refunds for parents, the full payment of the thirteenth month’s pension or indeed the recent wage agreements will actually increase purchasing power next year, and generate further economic growth. Despite this, the Left says that the Government is indulging in irresponsible spending. The Left seems to want to return to the pre-2010 period.
Well, with me pensions are never a matter of negotiation or debate. So I’m lucky, because I had my grandparents with me for a long time, and I still have my parents. So for me the pension isn’t such an abstract economic issue: it’s an emotional issue, a social justice issue, an issue about what a country thinks of its own parents and grandparents. And the fact is that we wouldn’t be where we are today if they hadn’t done their work. So they may be retired, but today’s successes wouldn’t have happened without the work they did. So whenever possible pensioners should always be protected. Pensions should always be protected, and if you can raise them you should do so without thinking twice. I was also troubled by the fact that although we’ve cleaned, dressed and bandaged almost every wound inflicted on Hungary by the Gyurcsány government, the last remaining issue was the thirteenth month’s pension. And although there have been major debates about this too, now that the economy has picked up I see the year 2022 as the one in which we shouldn’t hesitate to give pensioners the full thirteenth month’s pension – instead of the otherwise sensible but slower process of giving back one extra week’s pension every year. They will get this sometime in mid-February. I’m not saying that it will be easy, but it can be squeezed out of the budget, and the Finance Minister has done that. We also owe a debt of thanks to Mihály Varga, because he has arranged the budget in a way that means that he’s been able to squeeze it out, albeit with some difficulty. I repeat, this is simply important because it’s not just about giving pensioners more money. That isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it’s also about how we think about our own parents and the work of the people who have brought our country this far. I took it for granted that we’d make this final decision, which could even be called reparations, and that we’d return to pensioners what the Gyurcsány government had taken away. There was more debate about whether it’s possible to give people under 25 exemption from income tax, but that’s another issue, and also not just an economic one. Of course 18 is the age of majority in Hungary. Many young people are in work, and I respect those young people who start work at the age of 16, 17 or 18. But it isn’t so easy to get started. Of course, they’re younger, and it’s easier for them than for pensioners, because they aren’t plagued by illness, they have a different sense of time, and they have different plans. So being young is undoubtedly a good thing, but it isn’t easy. And it’s not easy to get started without living in “mom’s hotel”, when you’re at home always asking for pocket money and counting on your mother. But as an adult you need to stand on your own two feet, have your own apartment, take responsibility, choose a partner and dare to have children. So it’s not so easy to get started in this way – we all know that. And for this you need help. And I think that what we’re saying to people under the age of 25 is: “Dear friend, work, try to save as much money as you can, try to stand on your own two feet, and the state won’t take income tax from you until you’re 25. We’ll manage public expenditure without you. Later you’ll pay more because you’ll have got ahead: because you didn’t pay that tax, you were able to make faster progress. And then it will start coming back to the country. So we’ll advance you that sum for a few years so that you can get started.” I think this is the right thing to do. This isn’t just an economic issue. I’m glad that the economy is doing well enough to enable us to give this to young Hungarians. It’s a great thing when a country can appreciate young people and old people at the same time. I’m glad that we’ve been able to make such a balanced decision, that young people are being given an opportunity, and that the elderly are also being recognised.
Thank you! You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Photo credit: MTI