Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Hundreds of people protesting vaccine and mask mandates drove in a convoy to New Zealand’s capital on Tuesday and converged outside Parliament as lawmakers gathered after a summer recess.
The mostly unmasked protesters had come from across the country and their vehicles blocked Wellington’s central streets for hours as they emerged to meet and talk in the forecourt of Parliament.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chose not to meet with them as she delivered a speech to lawmakers outlining her priorities for the year.
Among the protesters’ grievances is the requirement in New Zealand that certain workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus, including teachers, doctors, nurses, police and military personnel.
Many protesters also oppose mask mandates – such as those in stores and among children over the age of about 8 in classrooms – and champion the ideal of more “freedom”.
New Zealand was spared the worst of the pandemic after closing its borders and implementing strict containment measures, limiting the spread of the virus. The country has reported just 53 virus deaths among its population of 5 million.
But some have grown tired of the restrictions. Ardern said last week that the country would end its quarantine requirements for incoming travelers in stages as its borders reopen.
With around 77% of New Zealanders fully vaccinated, Ardern also promised that she would not impose any more lockdowns.
Health officials have reported about 200 new cases of the virus every day as an outbreak of the omicron variant grows. Fourteen people are currently hospitalized due to the virus.
Police said Tuesday afternoon they had made no arrests and protest organizers had asked protesters to move their cars and trucks by 5 p.m., ahead of the evening rush hour.
Wellington council officials had previously indicated they were reluctant to issue tickets or order motorists to move, saying on social media: ‘We have to consider the safety of our staff and don’t want to put them in danger”.
In his speech, Ardern told lawmakers that his government’s guiding principles during the pandemic had been to protect lives and livelihoods, and he had done so through his strong health response which helped cushion the blow. brought to the economy, leading to record unemployment and strong GDP growth.