Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reaffirms commitment to scrapping COVID-19 vaccine mandates as protest halts traffic in Auckland

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reaffirmed her commitment to ending vaccine mandates but still will not put a firm date on it. 

It comes as thousands of anti-mandate protesters brought traffic to a halt in Auckland on Saturday as they marched along the Harbour Bridge, displaying a large banner off the side with the text: "Mandates gone 1st March". 

The Freedoms and Rights Coalition - one of the five groups representing the Parliament anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest - has warned that if mandates aren't lifted by March 1, there will be "mass rolling non-compliance actions".

Ardern, speaking to Newshub Nation's Simon Shepherd on Saturday, said she was still committed to rolling back vaccine mandates once Omicron has peaked, but she would not put a firm date on it. 

"We've spoken to the timelines we believe that we'll need to have things like vaccine mandates and passes. We've talked about how once we come off the peak and we've seen that our hospitals and our health system is being able to cope, we will be able to move on from there," she told the Nation. 

Ardern already announced on Monday the Government's plan to start lifting COVID-19 restrictions like vaccine mandates and certificates in roughly three to six weeks once Omicron has peaked in the community. 

She pushed back on the idea of giving a firm date. 

"In a pandemic? That's actually, I would have thought, a really significant guide saying and making it clear that once we hit that peak and come down and we've seen our hospitalisations stable and we know that it's safe, that we are committed to removing those," she told the Nation. 

"That is exactly what we've done. We stated the criteria that's required. What you're asking me to do is predict precisely where New Zealand will pick a peak and decline."

Anti-mandate protesters held a large banner off the side of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Anti-mandate protesters held a large banner off the side of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Photo credit: Rogan Steele

Ardern said the date will all depend on how the health system is coping with the outbreak. There are currently 263 people in hospital with COVID-19 and five in ICU. 

"We've always said it hasn't been about case numbers anymore, with Omicron very different to what we've seen with others because we are vaccinated," Ardern told the Nation. 

"We know that actually we can now safely have cases in the country and not have as many restrictions, but we won't know our ability to cope till we have peaks. So I will not remove safety protections for all New Zealanders based on the protests of a few if it jeopardises their health."

Ardern argues that vaccine mandates have been necessary to keep unvaccinated people safe. But with the daily number of cases now more than 10,000, the likelihood of unvaccinated people coming into contact with the virus is much higher. 

"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," Ardern said on Monday

"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."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sat down with Newshub Nation at the Beehive.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sat down with Newshub Nation at the Beehive. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield on Thursday highlighted the importance of vaccination in terms of transmission. 

Citing research from January, Dr Bloomfield said: "Compared with being unvaccinated, the odds of contracting Omicron after receiving three doses dropped by 67 percent - two-thirds, and for Delta the risk declined by a stunning 93 percent."

The protection vaccination provides is the reason the Government mandated it across several sectors. But in a bombshell decision on Friday, the High Court quashed the vaccine mandate for police and Defence Force staff, citing religious freedom

Protesters are claiming it as a win for their cause to scrap the mandates. 

The NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi temporarily closed all southbound lanes of the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Saturday in order to manage the safety risks posed by protestors who entered the state highway network on foot. 

The lanes reopened to the public at about 2pm, police said in an update. The protestors then gathered in Victoria Park as planned. 

Anti-mandate protesters marched through central Auckland.
Anti-mandate protesters marched through central Auckland. Photo credit: Rogan Steele

In Wellington, meanwhile, the weeks-long protest at Parliament continued as police urged people not to travel to the capitol if they were thinking about participating. 

"We are aware of a number of protesters planning to join the protest this weekend and urge people to stay away from an occupation site that is no longer a safe environment for families and children," a police statement on Saturday said. 

"Any vehicles that arrive and park illegally outside of the protest perimeter may be subject to towing and impounding.

"Police are aware of planned protests at other locations across the country today and are continuously monitoring this activity to ensure we are able to deploy staff should they be required to keep everyone safe and reduce any disruption to others."

One person was arrested on Thursday afternoon after attempting to move a bollard with their vehicle. The bollards were installed by police earlier this week at the entrance of streets surrounding Parliament to prevent more vehicles from setting up at the protest. 

The protest appears to be thinning out, according to police, with about 300 vehicles remaining in the cordoned area, down from 800 at its peak. There have been a total of 132 arrests made to date in relation to incidents at the protest grounds.