New Zealand police make arrests as Covid-19 vaccine mandate protests enter third day

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WELLINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, XINHUA) - Police arrested dozens of people in the grounds of New Zealand’s Parliament in Wellington on the third day of a protest against pandemic restrictions that was inspired by similar events in Canada.

About 120 protesters had been arrested by late Thursday (Feb 10) afternoon in the nation’s capital, according to a police statement. They face charges including trespass and obstruction, and are forbidden to return to the site.

“A number of protesters are still refusing repeated requests to leave the precinct,” said Superintendent Corrie Parnell. “Police will continue to have a presence at Parliament into the night and as long as necessary to ensure public safety.”

The protesters that remain at the Parliament grounds have been singing and listening to speeches, and police have formed a cordon around them. Some of the people are preparing to spend the third night of their protest in tents, while others have illegally parked cars and campervans in nearby streets.

On Tuesday, about 2,000 people descended on the city in cars and trucks, disrupting traffic and attempting to mimic the truckers who have gridlocked the Canadian city of Ottawa.

The convoy was timed to coincide with Parliament reconvening for the year and was similar to the one held in the Australian capital of Canberra on Monday. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday it is time for the protesters to move on, Television New Zealand reported. 

“It is not unusual to have protest activity at Parliament, that is part of our democracy,” Ms Ardern told reporters, according to the broadcaster. “But we do need to make sure that we keep that balance with people being able to live their lives, particularly those who live in the Wellington region.”

More than 94 per cent of New Zealanders aged 12 years and over are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and the country is currently rolling out booster shots as the Omicron variant slowly begins to take hold in the community.

The government has imposed vaccine mandates on a variety of industries and employees, including health workers, teachers and police. People are also required to show proof of vaccination to enter most hospitality outlets and public buildings.

New Zealand recorded 306 new community cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

A country of five million people, New Zealand has reported just over 18,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 53 deaths since the pandemic began. About 94 per cent of eligible people are vaccinated, with shots mandatory for some staff in frontline jobs.

"All of us want to actually move on. We are working very hard to put ourselves in the best possible position to do that,” Ms Ardern told reporters after visiting a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Auckland.Sh acknowledged that every New Zealander had the right to protest, but said that should not disrupt others’ lives.

Removing protesters was an operational matter for police, she said.

Police scuffling with activists as officers moved to clear an impromptu protest camp from the lawns of New Zealand's Parliament. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Ardern had garnered plaudits for keeping the country virtually Covid-19-free over the last two years, but the strict restrictions now in place have become unpopular, with the prime minister's approval ratings taking a hit in recent opinion polls.

With borders still closed, tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders face being cut off from families, while tourism businesses are struggling to stay afloat.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Trevor Mallard on Thursday authorised the closure of grounds around the distinctive "Beehive" Parliament building, after which demonstrators quickly confronted police officers, banging drums and screaming insults. Some were seen throwing empty plastic bottles at the police.

As the crowd pushed against barriers, police pulled them out and wrestled them to the ground, a Reuters witness said. Dozens were handcuffed and taken away amid cries of “Shame on you!” from the crowd.

Many protesters, who said they were vaccinated but were against mandating vaccines, were seen holding placards saying “Freedom”, “Leave our kids alone” and “Let me work”.

“We are not going anywhere. We will hold the line and see this through,” said one demonstrator who gave his name only as Adam, and said he had come from Palmerston North, about 140km north of Wellington.

“We want our freedom back,” said another protester, identifying himself as Dave. “Jacinda (Ardern) has turned her back on us. Kiwis are not dumb. We are losing our jobs and our lives due to these mandates and restrictions.”

Police said those arrested will face trespass and obstruction charges, and will be bailed to appear in court.

Authorities have also appealed to the owners or drivers of vehicles blocking streets surrounding parliament grounds to remove them or face enforcement action.

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