New Zealand police rules out using force to curb anti-vaccine protest

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New Zealand police on Friday ruled out forcefully clearing vehicles blocking roads outside parliament in a protest against coronavirus vaccine mandates, saying that would risk “wider harm.”

Taking inspiration from truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, hundreds of protesters have used vehicles to block several roads around the Beehive, as Wellington’s distinctive parliament building is known, for 11 days, and camped out on its front lawn.

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“Any enforcement action by police runs a serious risk of much wider harm than the protest is presently creating,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told a media briefing.

Coster said negotiations and de-escalation were the only safe ways to resolve the protest and he would continue to talk to the protesters. Police say there are about 800 protesters, but numbers could rise over the weekend.

Coster said any forceful police action would risk injuries to the public and could turn a largely peaceful protest violent and could increase the number of protesters.

A country of five million people, New Zealand has reported just over 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 53 deaths since the pandemic began. Fueled by the omicron variant, New Zealand reported 1,929 new local cases on Friday, up from the previous one-day high of 1,573 on Thursday.

About 94 percent of eligible people are vaccinated, with shots mandatory for some staff in front-line jobs.

The protest began as a stand against vaccine mandates but were later joined by groups calling for an end to all pandemic restrictions.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said the demonstrations were an “imported” phenomenon and rejected calls to remove all restrictions.

The protest has affected the functioning of some offices and businesses in the vicinity.

Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann said judicial proceedings needing the attendance of defendants in custody could not go ahead as the protesters’ vehicles were blocking secure access to the court.

“The current situation is extremely difficult,” Winkelmann said in a statement.

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