Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern brushes off Parliament protest stand-off with police

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems unfazed by the confrontational stand-off between protesters and police at Parliament where more than 50 have been arrested. 

For the third day in a row, protesters have been camped out on the front lawn outside Parliament, demanding an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other coronavirus measures like vaccine passports. 

House Speaker Trevor Mallard on Thursday morning authorised the closure of the Parliamentary precinct because tents are not permitted on the grounds and traffic in the surrounding area had been brought to a standstill. 

Police cordoned off the area and informed the protesters they were trespassing and had to move on. It then got heated, with protesters surging against the line of police, leading to more than 50 arrests. 

More than 100 additional police staff were called in, including from other districts, to support the operation, Wellington District Commander Superintendent Corrie Parnell said. 

Speaking to reporters in Auckland on Thursday, Ardern said she had witnessed several protests during her more than a decade in Parliament, and didn't seem fazed by the one at hand. 

"I've been in Parliament for over a decade, I've seen a number of protests in my time of different sizes. This is certainly not the largest I've seen," Ardern said.

"A lot of emotion in those protests. But I'm still reminded that, relative to the people that are at Parliament now, on the very day that they're there, tens of thousands of people went out and got vaccinated. 

"It is not reflective of where the rest of New Zealand is right now. All of us want to actually move on. We're working very hard to put ourselves in the best possible position to do that."

For the third day in a row, protesters have been camped out on the front lawn outside Parliament, demanding an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other coronavirus measures like vaccine passports.
For the third day in a row, protesters have been camped out on the front lawn outside Parliament, demanding an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other coronavirus measures like vaccine passports. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern said it was a police matter. 

"Ultimately, police are the ones that need to make those operational decisions around how they deal with any protest and they are doing that in this case. 

"Obviously every New Zealander has a right to protest, but there are also rules around what is able to happen on Parliament's forecourt, and of course we would expect that people have behaviours that don't disrupt the ability of others to go on with their lives as well. 

"I think I probably, over the past two years, have said everything possible that I could say on COVID. I think the majority of New Zealanders share a very similar sentiment: we want to keep one another safe, we want to be able to live our lives, we want to be able to have the ability to do as much as we're able to do before COVID as possible. 

"That is the path we're on but we all need to stick together."

Ardern said while New Zealanders have a right to protest, it's not fair when the lives of the public are disrupted. The Backbencher Gastropub across the road from Parliament, for example, announced that it would be closed for the rest of the week due to the disruption. 

"It is not unusual to have protest activity at Parliament. That is part of our democracy," Ardern said. 

"But we do need to make sure that we keep that balance of people being able to live their lives, particularly those who live in the Wellington region or who work in the Wellington region, so that is of course what the police are endeavouring to do."

When asked if it was time for the protesters to move on, Ardern said: "Yes, it is."

Ardern confirmed on Wednesday that vaccine mandates will not be in place forever

"We only want to use things like restrictions and passes and mandates for so long as they are providing safety for the community," she told reporters. 

"When they're not needed, of course, you'd look to remove them."

She said on Thursday: "I've seen other issues that have caused equal amounts of passion from members of the public so people feeling deeply about an issue is by no means new. People feeling deeply about this issue won't come as a surprise to the New Zealand public either. 

"I think what we need to keep remembering is that this is not representative of where the vast majority of New Zealanders are. The vast majority have been vaccinated, understand why we've had to have these rules for the period that we have, and can see the results: it has resulted in saving lives."

Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, said it was hard to plan in a pandemic, but setting an end date for the mandates wasn't impossible.

"I think you could potentially set a date a long time in the future and review it," he told Newshub. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland. Photo credit: Newshub

ACT leader David Seymour says it's time to get rid of them. 

"We said if we got 90 percent vaccinated we'd get our freedom back but it seems that the political control that comes from COVID is unending," Seymour told AM on Thursday

"We're going to need to start asking ourselves: 'What is the pathway out, how does Omicron change the game?' And it would seem that continuing to have these mandates, they may have already passed their use-by date given that we have very high vaccination rates."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has said it's "likely" that "people will need a booster" to keep their vaccination passes. 

Boosters are already mandatory for border, health, education, Corrections, police, Defence Force, and Fire and Emergency staff.

Last Friday a million more people in New Zealand became eligible for a booster shot after the interval between the second shot and a booster was reduced from four months to three. 

While research shows the latest Omicron variant of COVID-19 is less severe than Delta because it is less efficient at infiltrating the lungs, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says it should not be categorised as "mild".

And with the variant now spreading in New Zealand, the Government wants to get as many people boosted as possible to prevent hospitals from being overrun as has happened overseas. 

"Overseas we've seen that it is still those who are unvaccinated that are causing the widest impact on those health services," Ardern said. 

The impact of Omicron is evident in Australia. New South Wales reported 10,130 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 24 deaths - figures that have barely changed each day for weeks. 

While the number of cases isn't as high as anticipated in New Zealand - 204 community cases were registered on Wednesday - testing rates have been lower than expected and scanning numbers have plummeted. 

There are some suggestions that Kiwis may be reluctant to get pinged and have to test and self-isolate for up to 24 days

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