Parliament protest: Jacinda Ardern rejects 'differences in opinion mean we are divided as a nation' over COVID-19 response

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rejects the idea that "differences in opinion mean we are divided as a nation" over the Government's COVID-19 response. 

Her comments came after National leader Christopher Luxon delivered a speech declaring New Zealand "increasingly divided", which he said was "driven by COVID and vaccine mandates" and "frustrations shared by many Kiwis".

"What we are seeing outside Parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time."

The protest at Parliament against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions has entered its third week. But the Prime Minister is refusing to meet with them and denies the country is divided. 

"What I do know is there are a range of groups out there. That has been made clear by the letters they have produced, listing the different groups that are represented," Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference. 

She was referring to the five groups representing the Parliament protest - Convoy 2022 NZ, Freedom Alliance, New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out with Science, Outdoors & Freedom Movement, The Freedom and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom. 

A statement from the protest group said on Sunday: "We remain committed to speaking with senior government members to open dialogue about the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act and lifting of all mandates so that people can return to work and society."

The Prime Minister, referencing the group's statement, said the protest clearly was not just about vaccine mandates. 

"I would remind people that in their letter, they demanded that all of the protections that we currently have in place to slow down the pandemic, they wish to have removed," Ardern said. 

"I believe the majority of New Zealanders would disagree with that. I do not for a moment think that differences in opinion mean that we are divided as a nation. I absolutely reject that and I don't believe that is what we have on display now."

Protesters enters third week

The protest at Parliament began in early February, the first week MPs were back from the summer break. 

Police two weeks ago arrested more than 120 protesters after House Speaker Trevor Mallard issued a trespass notice. But a defiant group remained, despite the Speaker's controversial attempts at dispersing them with sprinklers and loud music. 

Mallard last Thursday announced a cross-party decision that there would be no dialogue "until the protest returns to one within the law, including the clearing of all illegally parked vehicles that are blocking streets, the removal of unauthorised structures, and the cessation of the intimidation of Wellingtonians". 

But the protesters kept coming, with the number of vehicles swelling to approximately 2000 at its peak on Saturday. Ardern has described it as "illegal" due to the estimated 800 vehicles illegally parked near the precinct and tents erected all over Parliament's lawn. 

Protesters clashed with police in the early hours again on Tuesday, as officers attempted to reduce the perimeter around Parliament, by moving concrete barriers installed on Monday further into areas currently occupied by the protesters.

A sign held up at the Parliament protest.
A sign held up at the Parliament protest. Photo credit: Getty Images

A statement from police said some officers were equipped with shields, in order to protect themselves from objects thrown by protesters. Three officers were taken to hospital after being sprayed with a stinging substance.

About 250 staff were involved in the operation to shift the existing concrete bollards to further reduce the area of protest activity. Two people have been arrested for obstructing police and one person has been arrested for driving in a dangerous manner.

Police said on Monday human waste was thrown at officers while the bollards were installed. Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers said the spillage of effluent into storm water drains, throwing of human waste at police officers, disruption and intimidation at the courts and Victoria University was unacceptable.

Police were made aware of protesters' plans to again throw human waste at officers on Tuesday. 

'Drop the mandates now'

The five groups representing the protest are continuing their demand for vaccine mandates to end immediately. 

"We don't use mandates to protect New Zealanders from the seasonal flu, nor the common cold," the group's statement released on Monday evening read. 

The Prime Minister acknowledged at her press conference that Omicron was milder than other strains of COVID-19, but it's still in a "pandemic state". 

"It is true to say that in terms of the experience that most will have that it is more mild to moderate," Ardern said. 

"I don't think that's where the debate lies. I think the issue is that COVID is in a pandemic state so the issue is the cumulative impact of people getting it all at once, and so that's where the real issue lies - making sure that you're able to properly manage that because if you're overwhelmed, people who otherwise might be able to be cared for properly for treatment miss out on that because of the pressure on the system. 

"No one is arguing that Omicron is a more mild to moderate illness for most people. 

"It's the fact it's a pandemic and that we have large numbers all at once. That is the area for concern and the cause for our health professionals - righly I believe - to want to ensure we protect our health system and slow it down."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

In a speech from the Beehive, Ardern said COVID-19 restrictions like vaccine certificates and mandates will start to ease after the Omicron variant has peaked in roughly three to six weeks.

"At that point, if we follow the pattern of other countries, we'll likely see a rapid decline, followed by cases stabilising at a lower level. That is the point when we can start to do things differently," she said. 

"Vaccine passes were a way of ensuring that within the relatively free system of the traffic lights, that people who were in high-risk places had some layer of protection.

"But once we come through a wave and peak of Omicron, that equation changes because many unvaccinated people will at that point have been exposed to the virus."

Ardern said vaccine mandates would likely remain for health workers who deal with vulnerable people, but for other sectors it would be reviewed. 

When asked if her announcement was a response to the protesters outside demanding an end to vaccine mandates, she replied: "Absolutely not."

"When that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won't compromise the lives of thousands of people - not because you demanded it."

The seven-day average for COVID-19 cases in New Zealand is 1667 and it's predicted cases will continue to double every three to four days. 

"It's likely then that very soon we will all know people who have COVID, or we will potentially get it ourselves," Ardern said. 

But she urged Kiwis not to be afraid, because 95 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated with two doses, and 65 percent is boosted. Public health measures like masks, gathering limits and vaccines passes to slow down the spread, she said. 

"There was a time when that was a scary prospect. But it doesn't have to be now."