WELLINGTON – Hundreds of people protesting vaccine and mask mandates drove in convoy to New Zealand's capital on Tuesday and converged outside Parliament as lawmakers reconvened after a summer break.
The mostly unmasked protesters had driven from around the country, and their vehicles clogged the central Wellington streets for hours as they got out to meet and speak on Parliament's forecourt.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern elected 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 get 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 about age 8 in school classrooms — and champion the ideal of more “freedom.”
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 5 million.
But some have grown weary of the restrictions. Ardern last week said the country would end its quarantine requirements for incoming travelers in stages as it reopened its borders.
With about 77% of New Zealanders fully vaccinated, Ardern has also promised she won't 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 hospitalized because of the virus.
Police said Tuesday afternoon they hadn't made any arrests and that 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 earlier indicated they were reluctant to issue tickets or 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, Ardern told lawmakers 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.