WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Thousands marched in New Zealand’s capital Wellington on Thursday to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and lockdowns, as the country reached the 90% fully vaccinated milestone.
New Zealand’s tough lockdown and vaccination drives have helped keep coronavirus infections and related deaths low, but it has also drawn criticism from some calling for more freedoms and an end to mandatory vaccine requirements.
The government has mandated vaccinations for teachers, workers in the health and disability sectors, police and other public service sectors.
Protesters, mostly unmasked, marched through the central business district of Wellington and gathered in front of the parliament building, know as the Beehive.
Security was beefed up at the Beehive with entrances closed off and dozens of police deployed.
Some at the peaceful demonstration held placards with messages like “Freedom over fear”, “lockdowns destroy lives” and “Kiwis are not lab rats”. Others had signs with the “Make America Great Again” slogan of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Under mounting pressure, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern eased most restrictions ahead of the Christmas break, abandoning her long-standing strategy of eliminating the coronavirus for a new “traffic light” system of living with the virus through higher vaccinations.
The South Pacific island nation’s international borders remain shut to the outside world and will only be gradually opened from next year.
The government said 90% of New Zealand’s eligible population, or about 3.8 million people, were fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the health regulator granted provisional approval for the Pfizer Inc COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Stephen Coates)