Hundreds of New Zealanders inspired by the Canadian trucker protest drove in convoy to their island nation's capital of Wellington on Tuesday and blocked the streets outside Parliament as lawmakers reconvened for the first time since summer.
The "convoy for freedom" protesters came in trucks and campervans from all over New Zealand, gathering to protest mask and vaccine mandates as left-wing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered her first speech of the new year, Reuters reports.
They called for "freedom" and said they would not leave Wellington until the country's onerous pandemic restrictions were lifted. They are following in the footsteps of the ongoing Canadian "Freedom Convoy" protest in Ottawa, which is now in its second week.
Ardern did not meet with the protesters and told reporters that their views were not representative of most New Zealanders, echoing what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said about protesters in his country belonging to a "fringe" minority.
"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 press conference.
"The majority of New Zealanders have done everything they can to keep one another safe."
The protesters want an end to New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine requirements for teachers, doctors, nurses, police, and military personnel. They also oppose mask mandates in public indoor spaces and in school classrooms.
Under Ardern's leadership, New Zealand has enacted some of the strictest lockdown measures of any country in the world. The country closed its borders, preventing tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders from having physical contact with their families. While New Zealand claims success for having only 53 virus deaths out of a population of more than 5 million people, their success came at the cost of their freedoms.
During her speech, Ardern said the Omicron variant will not be the last variant of the pandemic and the government will need to prepare for what comes next. However, with 77% of New Zealanders vaccinated against COVID-19, she promised the country will not impose more lockdowns.
The Associated Press reports that as of Tuesday afternoon in New Zealand, police had not made any arrests and have asked protest organizers to move their vehicles by 5 p.m. local time, before rush hour.
Wellington council officials said they were hesitant to issue tickets or order motorists to move, posting on social media, "“We must consider the safety of our staff and do not want to put them in harm’s way.”