WELLINGTON – The number of cars and trucks blocking the streets near the New Zealand parliament fell on Friday, although more protesters were expected to arrive over the weekend, including some by boat.
For more than two weeks, protesters against coronavirus vaccine mandates have been standing in front of parliament, their numbers declining on weekdays and then increasing to thousands on weekends.
The protest comes at a time when the number of coronavirus cases is increasing in New Zealand. Health authorities on Friday reported a record 12,000 new cases – almost twice as many as the previous record set on Thursday, and more than about 2,000 a day a week ago.
This week, the Ministry of Health listed the protest site as a place of interest to the outbreak.
Opponents of vaccine mandates claimed victory Friday after a judge ruled in favor of a group of police and military officials who claimed the mandate affecting them was unjustifiably violating their rights. The decision will allow about 280 unvaccinated workers to keep their jobs.
Police reluctantly used force to disperse the protest, but in the last week reduced the number of vehicles, putting around the protest concrete barriers and allowing machines to travel, but not return. This reduced the number of cars from about 800 to 300.
Authorities have issued an inconspicuous message to those planning to join the protest.
“Police would like to reiterate the warning to those who plan to travel to Wellington to take part in an illegal protest this weekend – don’t do it,” the statement said. Police also called on protesters to take home about 30 children from the protest, saying it is dangerous.
But on Friday, maritime authorities confirmed that some private boats were already heading towards the capital.
“We know the ships left Picton this morning to cross the Cook Strait into Wellington,” said Nigel Clifford, deputy director of Maritime New Zealand. “It is unknown how many ships are currently on the route or planning to make the trip.”
Many protesters were stuck on the South Island because they did not want to take ferries that required passengers to show a vaccine pass or a negative test.
The convoy protest was inspired by similar protests in Canada and sparked other protests in New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s security details have been tightened after protesters insulted her at events, including when she left for a school visit to Christchurch on Thursday.
Lawmakers on all sides refused to meet with the protesters, although former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who is no longer an MP, visited the protest site.
Brian Roper, an associate professor of politics at Ataga University, said he believes the protest has growing political influence.
He said he believes the protest represents a very small minority of people who have been seized by far-right media platforms. Other protesters include those who live alternative lifestyles, he said, but they are not ordinary working-class people, as is sometimes portrayed.
Earlier this week, one demonstrator drove towards the police line, barely avoiding the officers. And police said some of the demonstrators pelted them with human feces. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing 132 protesters by truck.
The protesters were well organized: they pitched tents on lawns in front of parliament and loaded trucks in portable toilets, boxes of donated food and bales of straw to lie down when the grass turned to mud.
They even dug a vegetable garden, set up a tent in the kindergarten and assembled makeshift showers, signifying their intention to stay for a long time.
At one point Parliament Speaker Trevor Mallard turned on the sprinklers and thundered the tunes of Barry Manila in an unsuccessful attempt to force them to leave.
Ardern said she plans to start easing mandates and restrictions on viruses after the peak of the current outbreak.
About 77% of New Zealand’s population is vaccinated.
Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has reported 61 deaths from the virus – including five on Friday – among a population of 5 million, after it imposed strict border controls and blockades to eliminate previous outbreaks.
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