8 February, 2022
New Zealand‘s capital was partially brought to a standstill today as a ‘freedom convoy’ of Covid protesters rolled into town and blocked roads around parliament.
Hundreds of cars, trucks and motorbikes carrying thousands of people drove from across the country and converged in Wellington on Tuesday morning to protests against Jacinda Ardern‘s hardline pandemic policies.
Traffic slowed to a crawl as vehicles blocked roads around parliament and in other key locations, before taking to the streets to wave banners and placards demanding the return of freedoms, denouncing vaccine mandates, and attacking the Labour prime minister.
Crowds of hundreds then gathered in front of parliament to hear speakers and shout slogans, with some pitching tents and vowing to remain for the ‘long haul’. Ms Ardern said she has no intention of engaging with them.
The protest mirrors a similar demonstration in Canada, where a ‘freedom convoy’ began rolling across the country in January protesting a mandate that will force truckers crossing the border into America to be vaccinated.
Trucks have been parked in Ottawa for a week, with Justin Trudeau under fire for demonising the anti-vaccine mandate protesters as ‘dangerous’ anti-vaxxers and far right activists. He also previously dismissed them as a small minority before their numbers grew and they reached the capital.
In New Zealand, Wellington local Stu Main said the protesters felt their concerns about rights being eroded were not being heard by the government.
‘I’m actually vaccinated but I’m against mandating people to be vaccinated,’ he told AFP. ‘I think it’s disgraceful, forcing vaccination on people who don’t want it.’
New Zealand, where more than 76 per cent of the population is full vaccinated against Covid, has mandated vaccine for some professions – such as police, doctors and soldiers.
A pass system is also in force, cutting off some public locations for those who have turned down the jab.
Many protesters also oppose mask mandates – such as those in stores – and champion the ideal of more ‘freedom’.
Vaccine passes are currently required to enter restaurants, sports events and religious gatherings – though they are not required for public transport, supermarkets, schools or for patients visiting healthcare settings.
Several of the Wellington protesters carried Canadian flags, including an expatriate named Billy, who declined to give his surname. ‘I’m just supporting the brothers in Canada, fighting for freedom over there,’ he said.
Two convoys have spent several days winding their way towards Wellington: One of which started in the town of Bluff, the southernmost point of the country, and another in Cape Reinga, in the far north.
New Zealand was spared the worst of the pandemic after it closed its borders and implemented strict lockdowns, limiting the spread of the virus.
The nation has reported just 53 virus deaths among its population of five million.
But some have grown weary of the restrictions. Ms Ardern last week said the country would end its quarantine requirements for incoming travellers in stages as it reopened its borders.
With about 77 per cent of New Zealanders fully vaccinated, Ms Ardern has also promised she will not impose more lockdowns.
Health officials have been reporting about 200 new virus cases each day as an outbreak of the Omicron variant grows. Fourteen people are currently in hospital because of the virus.
Police said on Tuesday afternoon they had not made any arrests and that organisers had asked protesters to move their cars and trucks by 5pm, ahead of the evening rush hour.
Wellington council officials had earlier indicated they were reluctant to order motorists to move, saying on social media, ‘we must consider the safety of our staff and do not want to put them in harm’s way’.
In her speech, Ms Ardern said that her government’s guiding principles during the pandemic had been to protect lives and livelihoods, and it had done that with its strong health response which helped cushion the blow to the economy, leading to record-low unemployment and strong GDP growth.