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Covid 19 Omicron Parliament protest: Protesters say Government has ‘dug itself a hole’ by refusing to meet; Police chief Andrew Coster admits it ‘shouldn’t have got to this’

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Police say they’re taking a zero-tolerance approach to “abuse, intimidation, or violence” from protesters at Parliament to members of the public.

“There will be an increased police presence around the protest area, especially at the start and end of each school/work day. Anyone abusing or intimidating members of the public can expect to be arrested, removed and face charges,” police said just before 6pm.

“Police continue to prioritise maintaining the security of Parliament, the Courts and nearby university campus to allow normal services to continue,” police said in their latest update.

There were no major incidents today but officers did impound a vehicle after complaints of burnouts.

“Police wish to thank those who moved their cars voluntarily, and those bystanders who helped to physically shift cars that were creating a road safety hazard.

“Sky Stadium which was at capacity late yesterday afternoon was about half full today,” police said.

“Police are assessing the availability of this parking space which was intended to encourage those blocking existing streets, to relocate there.

“Police engagement with key protest leaders has been positive over the weekend, with security and safety being the agreed area of focus. Police will continue to work with them in good faith to resolve issues.

“In the medium term, we will continue working to free up the networks and infrastructure of the surrounding areas to remove the burden felt by the Wellington public, by bringing the protest back within the parliamentary precinct, and ultimately within the lawful bounds of public protest action, acknowledging this may take some time.”

The protesters occupying Parliament’s lawn earlier said the Government “has childishly dug itself a hole” in its refusal to meet with them and has called out what they labelled Speaker Trevor Mallard’s “puerile behaviour”.

“Despite knowing the outcome is impossible to achieve, the ultimatum over vehicle parking is not dissimilar to a top-down command issued by a parent to a child,” a statement issued on behalf of the protesters said.

The statement – signed by Convoy 2022 NZ, Freedom Alliance, New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out with Science, Outdoors & Freedom Movement, The Freedom and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom – also fired a missive at National leader Christopher Luxon.

“In any normal situation like this, the Opposition would read the room and pivot. But by joining the cross-party agreement to not engage with the protesters, they have shown themselves to be gutless and incapable of representing the interests and concerns of the New Zealand public,” they said.

“Luxon’s strong support for mandates … will be remembered at the next election,” they said.

The protester groups said they were “working with the police in a mutually co-operative manner to ensure everyone’s safety and right to peaceful protest”.

“This was particularly important over the past two days as numbers attending Parliament Grounds protest naturally swell over the weekend.

“It is vital that we maintain a respectful and open dialogue with the police as we are all in unchartered territories. At all costs, we must avoid the situation at Parliament Grounds last week, which saw 122 people arrested and many more hurt.

“Despite formally requesting a meeting over a week ago, and then us putting forward a highly skilled mediator five days ago, the Government still refuses to engage with us.”

Meanwhile, the police presence in the streets behind Parliament is decreasing slowly and the gates are now open after dozens of officers had earlier been deployed to the area following a group of protesters attempting to access the precinct from the west side.

Local resident Wade, on Ballantrae St, said about 15 protesters made a lot of noise at about 3pm.

“Then a whole bunch of police came running.”

As many as 50 officers had lined up outside the gate which allows access behind Parliament – believed to be a response to a call from protesters to form a human chain in the area.

It is understood protesters had planned to do it at 10am today but they were turned away before allegedly trying again this afternoon.

Parliament security staff had earlier closed the gate into the area but were allowing police vehicles through.

The back of Parliament is currently the only open accessway into the building for all of the staff inside.

Access on Hill St for pedestrians is restricted. At the lower end of the street, near the portaloos and Court of Appeal, convoy cars are in places parked side-by-side but traffic can still flow through.

A tent has also been set up at the Court of Appeal.

Earlier on Sunday, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the parliamentary protest in Wellington “shouldn’t have got to this”, but says New Zealanders would not have accepted the level of confrontation needed to stop it.

Meanwhile, Act leader David Seymour has broken ranks with other political parties in Parliament, saying it may now be time to rethink the need for vaccine mandates.

Coster told Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q&A programme that on the first night that tents were pitched outside Parliament, it may have looked like police should have gone in.

But he said the level of confrontation wouldn’t have been “accepted” by many New Zealanders.

He said there is no doubt the protest is “unlawful and unreasonable” and “clearly this protest has crossed a line” and he is focusing on the safest resolution.

Coster said more than 100 people had been arrested and “capacity had been reached”.

Another tactic would be to use force to drive the crowds away, similar to what was seen with the Springbok Tour, but he said that was a low point in New Zealand’s history.

Coster said if police used confrontation, they would have to “move in” using batons and tear gas to clear the crowds.

“I think police could clear the protest”, Coster told Q&A, but the harm caused wouldn’t be “acceptable”.

There is an element in this crowd that is unsavoury, and in some cases crossing the line – “it’s criminality”, Coster said.

Coster said hundreds of protests turn up to Parliament, and it’s easy in hindsight to say “we ought to have known this would occur” but he did not think police had “significant enough intelligence” prior to the protest.

“This is a really unpleasant, difficult situation and I’m concerned people are being affected in this way,” Coster told Jack Tame.

Police plan to continue working with protest organisers to try and achieve de-escalation and that is the current approach, Coster said.

He said protesters have been respectful and able to have a conversation.

Coster said a state of emergency in Wellington is not needed right now.

Coster said police cannot stop someone from putting a tent on Parliament lawns “right now”.

We are in a very complex situation, where it’s very difficult to foresee how things are going to track,” Coster said, and it was not appropriate to comment on what people “ought to have done”.

Coster said the sprinklers were “not a police tactic” but he could not comment on Trevor Mallard’s actions.

Coster said there has been a range of funding support behind the protests, but he would not be drawn on whether funding has come from overseas.

“I’m sure we’ve got a wide range of views in our frontline,” Coster said, but he is happy with his approach.

He said they are speaking with police in Ottawa, who today pushed back against anti-mandate protesters and retook control of the streets in front of the country’s parliament building.

“It is incredibly frustrating for those who have done the hard yards to get through these unusual times we have had,” he said. “Enforcement has to be there at a point in time … the tactics have to be appropriate for all involved.”

He said the violence used during the Springbok Tour meant there was a loss of trust in police and that could happen with this protest if police have to resort to confrontation, and he wants to explore all other options.

The Police Minister has expressed confidence in him, Coster said, and he’s focusing on the job at hand right now, and not on stepping down.

“I think there is a good opportunity to de-escalate,” Coster said.

After the interview Coster told Q&A police do have the power to close roads, but those powers are not “presently engaged”.

Meanwhile, Act’s David Seymour says it may be time to move on from vaccine mandates, citing what he called new evidence that the vaccine is not making a difference in the Omicron outbreak.

In a release on Sunday morning, Seymour said the infection numbers of the past week by vaccination status showed little difference in the likelihood of a fully, partially, or unvaccinated person testing positive with Omicron.

But he also said the data didn’t mean vaccination was not useful or effective.

“Vaccination is still your best bet for staying out of hospital, but even strongly pro-vaccine people like me have to confront what new evidence says about infection rates.”

He said Health Ministry data showed 225 out of every 100,000 unvaccinated persons tested positive. The number for partially vaccinated was 204, and that for fully vaccinated was 178.

“There are a number of possible explanations for why numbers between infection rates for vaccinated and unvaccinated people should appear so similar. For example, vaccinated people might be more trusting of or able to access the healthcare system, and therefore be more likely to take a test than unvaccinated people.

“None of the explanations can really explain the similarity without accepting that vaccination makes a weak difference at best to whether a person tests positive for Omicron, however.”

He said Omicron was changing the numbers, but they are consistent with international evidence as shown in Australia which is seeing “widespread Omicron outbreaks well beyond those who are vaccinated”.

He called on the Health Ministry to publish data for vaccination rates “transparently”.

Seymour said poor transparency was suppressing debate and leading to mistrust and dissatisfaction with Government.

“People have been led to believe for over a year that other people being vaccinated would protect them from being infected themselves. It appears that is no longer true, or at least the effect has been dramatically weakened.”

He also questioned segregation when there was “little difference” in infection rate and spread between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

“It is time to weigh up the costs that vaccine requirements are placing on individuals, on workplaces, and on social cohesion, and ask whether policies that force vaccination in various settings are still worth it.”

Māori Council head Matthew Tukaki said he was starting a counter-protest to the Wellington mandate protesters, calling on the public to use the hashtag #endtheprotest on social media.

Tukaki said an overwhelming number of New Zealanders have been in touch with him to say they’ve had enough.

“The vast number of Wellingtonians who are fed up with the disruption to their lives, the abuse, the desecration to the memories of our servicemen and women,” he said in an email.

He said his online protest will enable everyday New Zealanders to have their say safely, without confrontation, intimidation, abuse, and threats.

Protest nears its third week

In Wellington this morning the rain which plagued the protest site at Parliament has abated but the ground is still incredibly damp with many protesters breaking out gumboots.

A man is addressing a moderate crowd over a loudspeaker, saying protesters needed to stick to their main purpose.

“We’ve got to stop partying,” he said.

He also claimed some protesters had left the site.

“The truckers are going … the Māori are going.”

The pre-recorded message from Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard has rung out across the grounds again this morning, met with boos and jeers from the crowd.

Tempers in the capital have been wearing thin as the anti-mandate protest at Parliament continues to grow and nears its third week.

Mallard has asked for scoping work to begin on installing a fence around the perimeter of Parliament. If it went ahead, Cabinet would have to sign off on the funding for it.

Mallard said he asked for that work to begin early last week, and had raised it in a meeting of representatives of all political parties.

A fence was recommended in a security review done of Parliament in 2019/20.

Mallard said he would still expect Parliament’s grounds to be open to the public most of the time but the protest had highlighted the difficulties in being able to control access to the grounds when needed.

The grounds are currently surrounded by low walls and always open to pedestrian access, although in recent years gates and bollards have been installed to restrict vehicle access.

This morning it appears that cars that yesterday lined Featherston St have now largely vacated the area.

Yesterday, cars belonging to protesters lined both sides of the road, as well as the median lane which limited the space for normal traffic to pass through.

Featherston St became a site of tension yesterday when police decided all cars on the median lane had to be moved to allow emergency services to move more freely.

While most cars were moved voluntarily by their owners, some had to be towed which sparked outrage from some protesters.

As the situation was explained by police with the help of protest security staff, the tension dissipated.

There are still a handful of protest cars parked on Featherston St towards Thorndon Quay.
It is unclear whether the cars formerly parked on Featherston St were parked elsewhere in the occupation zone.

A McDonald’s staff member has been stationed outside the franchise’s site on Bunny St and is checking vaccine passes on entry in light of incidents of abuse directed at staff.

Three police officers are also keeping watch near the front door, to offer some security to McDonald’s staff.

The McDonald’s staffer at the door said about 90 per cent of people were well-behaved but 10 per cent had been troublesome.

He said there had been about five to six incidents where abuse had been hurled at staff, including one person spitting their drink at a staff member.

Police have told protesters who have been camping on the lawn in front of Turnbull House they need to leave.

One protester who had camped there for days said they had been advised by police they weren’t able to camp there any longer.

As it was one of the few grassy areas that hadn’t been turned to mud, the protester feared others would come and take the open spots.

The protester said they had been advised to seek out the admin tent in the centre of the protest to be allocated a free spot after some people had vacated the area.

The admin tent was also responsible for paying people’s parking fines, the protester added.

Multiple reports over the past 12 days cite anti-social behaviour by protesters, including abusing passersby – among them children – for wearing masks, and surrounding streets and buildings have been overtaken by tents, campervans and cars.

The protest camp grew yesterday as a fresh convoy of cars – which began in Auckland – arrived in Wellington.

As protester numbers grew, police warned of “serious concerns” for safety at a concert at the site on Saturday night.

The “Rhythm & Rights” concert, organised by Destiny Church-aligned Freedom and Rights Coalition began at 4pm and included performances by Shane Walker, Dam Native, Sweet & Irie and DJ Raw.

“Police are aware of a planned concert on Parliament grounds this evening and have serious concerns around the health and safety of such an event,” police said in a statement.

“We continue to maintain a highly visible, reassurance presence on-site, and staff are engaging with the public and protesters to provide advice and, where necessary, take enforcement action.”

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has said police are holding off on stronger enforcement because of concerns it could lead to wider violence and disruption around New Zealand.

“There would come a point in time when [force] is the only option,” he told the Sunday Star-Times. “But the downside consequences of that, both locally and nationally, would be significant, and that’s something that we would take a high threshold to move to.

“There is a lot of strong feeling being expressed around the country through protest, and how law enforcement deals with that strong feeling will have a bearing on how peaceful we are as a country.”

Police confirmed they had attended at least six medical events within the protest and urged anyone parked unlawfully to remove their vehicle and enable ready access to emergency services.

An estimated 800 vehicles are parked illegally around the protest site.

Police cleared illegally parked vehicles on Thorndon Quay on Saturday – 15 were moved by protesters after police spoke with them and two were towed. Most cars, which were originally parked in the median lane, were removed by the owners peacefully.

Police last night added of the illegal parking situation: “Police are also noting the registration of vehicles currently impeding traffic for follow up enforcement action, and structures such as tents and marquees are being removed from any site that does not form part of the main protest area.

“The parking facility at Sky Stadium is at capacity.”

Wellington City councillor Rebecca Matthews told the Herald on Sunday police need to find a way to get the situation under control.

“I think that’s what Wellingtonians especially want to see: this whole thing contained and not growing.”

She said residents were “very scared” and people were reporting “more brazen” harassment that had extended through town.

“It seems to be happening in the direct presence of the police, and without any action being done to protect people.”

Despite protesters claiming they’re fighting for “freedom”, Matthews said Wellingtonians had less and less freedom because of the protest.

“We feel like the city isn’t ours anymore.”

She said wearing a mask to keep yourself and others safe had almost become a “marker” to get abused by the protesters.

“We want to see some more active policing, everybody supports the right to protest, we’re used to it in Welly, it’s part of our city, but we don’t think these people have a right to intimidate and harass Wellingtonians.

“Where are the police? We don’t want to be the collateral damage.”

In response, a police spokesperson told the Herald police recognise the ongoing impact from the protest, particularly on residents in the central city and Thorndon area.

“Police have a significant presence in the area and [have] been visiting some residents, particularly those most affected by the protest.”

In a separate statement last night police said they had a team ready to respond to incidents outside the parliamentary precinct.

“Police are also noting the registration of vehicles currently impeding traffic for follow-up enforcement action.

“Police have attended at least six medical events within the protest and continue to urge anyone parked unlawfully to remove their vehicle and enable ready access to emergency services.”

On Friday, the country’s top police officer said negotiation and de-escalation were the only safe, and most desirable, ways to resolve the protest.

Yesterday police confirmed the number of people arriving at Parliament grounds to protest against Covid-19 vaccination mandates and a slew of other causes and grievances had increased.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster and leaders from the city’s business community have written to Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Small Business Minister Stuart Nash requesting urgent financial support as the Parliament protests roll through their second week.

“The pandemic is having a significant impact on Wellington businesses, some of which are now on the brink of closure,” Foster said.

Foot traffic and spending in the central city was down 20 to 30 per cent since the end of last year.

A Hawke’s Bay couple, who wouldn’t be named, said the mandates hadn’t affected their jobs but they were concerned about the vaccine itself, claiming they had friends who were in hospital as a result.

“Why is the media not reporting that?”

According to Medsafe’s latest published safety report on January 31, there have been 51,710 adverse events following immunisation reports since the Pfizer vaccination programme began in New Zealand.

Of these, 2447 were considered serious and 49,263 non-serious.

More than 9.45 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given in New Zealand.

“The protective benefits of vaccination against Covid-19 far outweigh the potential risks of vaccination,” Medsafe said.

Experts, such as Auckland University vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, have also backed the vaccine.

It had “absolutely been fast-tracked”.

“That is not because steps have been missed but because the layers of bureaucracy and restricted funding were removed virtually overnight and companies that normally compete with each other collaborated instead.

“The technology was already available.”

On Friday, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said police wouldn’t take enforcement action against protesters despite the protest site growing by the day.

Most demonstrators were peaceful and protest groups had established some internal discipline, Coster said.

He also backtracked on an earlier pledge to start towing vehicles from occupied streets around Parliament, saying that would only escalate tensions.

“We needed to explore the option of that and test what the reaction would be. That approach would have been provocative and unhelpful.”

One resident told the Herald on Sunday that although they support the right to protest, it was sad the university had to close for eight weeks, and the impact it has had on some businesses and commuters.

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