New Zealand police on Thursday began forcefully removing hundreds of people who have been camping outside its parliament building for the last three days to protest Covid-19 vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions.
Inspired by the truckers demonstrations in Canada, which is into its 13th day with protesters blocking two border crossings with the US, several thousand protesters this week blocked streets near the parliament in capital Wellington with their trucks, cars and motorbikes.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday told the protesters to “move on”, saying the demonstration “is not reflective of where the rest of New Zealand is out right now.”
“All of us want to actually move on. We are working very hard to put ourselves in the best possible position to do that, Ardern told reporters after visiting a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Auckland.
Officers were seen taking many protesters away amid shouting of “shame on you” after they stepped in to clear grounds around the distinctive “Beehive” parliament building, a Reuters witness said. Police were using loudspeakers warning protesters to take down their tents or be arrested.
“We are protesting peacefully. Why should we leave?,” one protester said. “We are here with a clear message… to end the mandates.”
New Zealand has put in place some of the toughest restrictions for the last two years to deal with the coronavirus that have helped keep infections and deaths lower than in many comparable nations.
A country of five million people, New Zealand has reported just over 18,000 confirmed cases and 53 deaths since the pandemic began. About 94% of eligible people there are vaccinated.
But the restrictions have frustrated many, and with borders still closed, tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders are cut off from families while tourism businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
Ardern said every New Zealander had the right to protest but that should not disrupt others’ lives, adding the decision to remove protesters was an operational matter for police.
It was not immediately clear how many were arrested on Thursday but police in a statement issued late on Wednesday said three men were arrested on parliament grounds and have been charged with obstruction.