Covid-19 Omicron convoy protest: Govt in crisis meeting over protest, police increase tow capacity

Top government officials met this morning to discuss the protest occupation at Parliament, as police said they have now “significantly increased tow capacity.”

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the protest was a “bit of a dog’s breakfast” and the bad news was that he thought they would still be there in three months’ time.

On day 10 of the occupation at parliament, the Prime Minister says the country’s surging Covid cases are the priority for the Government – not the actions of protesters.

A record 1573 new covid cases were reported at 1pm.

The focus needed to be on the “growing pandemic and keeping people safe,” Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Rotorua today.

“What is happening there is illegal,” she said of the protesters.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has since taken issue with Ardern’s comments.

In a tweet after Ardern’s media standup, Peters said: “The PM just said the protest at parliament is illegal because they are setting up camp and that MPs shouldn’t get involved and to leave it up to police. At Ihumatao they set up camp on privately owned land and she covertly sent in her Ministers to negotiate…”

Defence Minister Peeni Henare says one of the issues with the Defence Force helping tow protesters’ vehicles from around Parliament is that the equipment they had would “wreck the cars”.

Henare said a formal response to the Police request for Defence Force assistance in moving the vehicles was yet to come, and it was up to the Chief of Defence and Police Commissioner to work out whether it was a realistic option.

“Many of the Defence Force towing vehicles aren’t actually towing vehicles, they are salvage vehicles. So if one of them were to pick up a car, it would wreck the car.”

Another issue was whether the Defence Force had enough personnel to help out. The demands of their MIQ duties, the mission to Tonga after the volcanic explosion, and a trip to Antarctica meant personnel were stretched.

He said staff coming off a rotation on MIQ had to isolate for a period after that ended, and one such rotation had just ended.

Henare said some larger Army vehicles on hand to deal with the big vehicles, if required, such as the campervans, vans and buses, but he had been advised they would “ultimately wreck them”.

He said that raised issues of liability for the damage. “If a car is wrecked, then who is responsible?

“If the Defence Force came, they don’t have powers to detain, they don’t have powers to arrest. So it’s all of those operational matters need to be worked through.”

Henare said that if ministerial authority was required, he would consider it once the operational issues had been sorted out.

The Defence Act requires ministerial sign-off in some instances, such as where Police call in the Defence Force to help in emergencies where there is a risk to life, public safety or property – such as counter-terrorism activities.

The Police can also call on the Defence Force to help out with a “public service” without ministerial sign-off.

Asked why it was taking so long for the Defence Force to respond, Henare said Police and Defence were in frequent contact.

“It is quite a large call to bring in the Defence Force here, domestically. I’ve been involved in Waitangi all my life, the protests in Waitangi in recent times have been bigger than the protests we’re seeing here and the Defence Force weren’t used.

“We back the Police to do it. The Defence Force will continue to work with them to ensure that where we need to, we respond.”

It comes after police said earlier they had increased their towing capacity but are still opting to engage in discussions with protest leaders.

They warn that the clogged streets created problems last night when a female protester suffered a medical event.

“The woman was taken to hospital but once again the ambulance was unable to drive directly to her because of the protesters’ vehicles blocking surrounding roads,” police said.

“We continue to urge protesters to move the vehicles blocking roads as these are not only an inconvenience but also a danger in situations like this.”

Police said since announcing an intention to tow vehicles from the streets surrounding the protest and appealing for further support from tow operators, they now had access to significantly increased tow capacity.

“Having observed the response from protesters and noting the ongoing dynamics of similar situations overseas, Police is continuing to exercise careful judgement about when to commence a towing phase.”

They would continue to focus on engagement with protest leaders with the aim of building on the initial positive responses seen so far.

There would be asignificantly increasing visibility and presence of police around the area to ensure everyone’s safety, said a spokesperson.

There had been no further arrests overnight.

The protest has resulted in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet re-convening the ODESC (Officials’ Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination), a grouping of government department heads which usually meets during emergencies or crises to discuss the response.

Police have struggled to clear the protest, which has grown over the past nine days – and other protest camps have been set up in places including Christchurch, Dunedin and Picton.

A spokesperson for DPMC said the grouping of chief executives were meeting to “discuss issues related to the ongoing protest.”

“The chief executives are from a range of government agencies,” they said.

“The meeting will ensure there’s a shared understanding of the situation and that all risks and potential implications have been identified.

“The National Security System is coordinated by the National Security Group in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but Police remain the lead agency responding to the protest.”

Earlier Deputy Leader of the House Michael Wood issued a warning to colleagues offering support to protesters outside Parliament, saying a “river of filth” flows beneath the party atmosphere outside.

Political commentator Shane te Pou told the Herald that while many of the protesters were moderates,there was a “dark, deep core” at the heart of the movement and it was responsible for driving much of the viral nature of the online messaging.

He said those groups were not interested in an outcome, but in “undermining the norms of New Zealand society”.

He added that, if the mandates were removed tomorrow, many protesters would simply find another cause to platform what he said was a form of nationalism that was new to New Zealand.

Meanwhile protesters due to appear in court today have been prevented from entering Wellington District Court, due to their refusal to wear masks or present a vaccine certificate.

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