WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of people protesting vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions blocked streets outside New Zealand’s parliament on Tuesday with trucks and campervans, inspired by similar demonstrations in Canada.
The “convoy for freedom” protesters arrived from all corners of New Zealand and gathered outside the parliament building in the capital Wellington, called the Beehive, ahead of the first speech for the year by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The protesters were largely unmasked, held placards calling for “freedom” and vowed to camp outside parliament until the COVID-19 curbs are lifted. The protests, which may run for days, is inspired by the ongoing truckers blockade in the Canadian capital Ottawa against strict government measures to fight the pandemic.
Ardern did not meet the protesters, and told reporters later that the protesters did not represent the majority view.
“I think it would be wrong to in any way characterise what we’ve seen outside as a representation of the majority,” Ardern said at a news conference.
“The majority of New Zealanders have done everything they can to keep one another safe.”
In her first parliamentary speech for the year earlier in the day, Ardern told lawmakers that the COVID-19 pandemic will not end with the Omicron variant and New Zealand will have to prepare for more variants of the virus this year.
Ardern’s government has enforced some of the toughest pandemic restrictions for the last two years as the government tried to keep the coronavirus out.
The policies helped keep infections and deaths low. A country of five million people, New Zealand has had about 18,000 confirmed COVID cases so far and 53 deaths.
But it also angered many who faced endless home isolation, and tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders who were cut off from families back home as the borders remained sealed. The measures have also been devastating for businesses dependent on international tourists.
Ardern’s approval ratings plummeted in the latest 1News Kantar Public Poll released last month, as the public marked her down for the delays in vaccinations and in removing restrictions.
The government said last week that the country will reopen its borders to the rest of the world in phases only by October.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Michael Perry and Raju Gopalakrishnan)