Covid 19 convoy protest: Towing operation could take days, involve Defence Force

Police are preparing to move against Covid response protesters who have brought parts of Wellington city to a standstill, warning illegally parked occupiers that “time is running out fast”.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said on AM this morning police would start towing vehicles over the “next day or so”.

Towies would be required to move the vehicles, but they would be supported by police officers.

“We are not seeking an escalation here, we just need to clear the roads,” he said.

“We are engaging with protesters about the manner of the protest. But there has to be a line here – this can’t go on indefinitely.”

Later speaking with Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking, Coster said they had also appealed for more assistance including from the New Zealand Defense Force for their towing capabilities.

On whether the police were doing enough he said it was important they took a measured approach.

“If we had of went in there early on guns blazing that we would have had a much messier and problematic situation on our hands.”

“What we need here is a resolution that means normal people can go about their normal lives safely and that calls for a measured approach on police’s behalf.”

* 7.07am: Police Commissioner Andrew Coster on Parliament protest
* 7.37am: Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins

With the protracted standoff in its eighth day yesterday, protesters claimed they want to minimise disruption and plan to work with police to identify rogue elements in their midst.

The group said it had received no response to a request to meet Cabinet ministers, but police had acknowledged their right to protest on Parliament grounds.

Earlier police attempts to persuade occupiers and demonstrators to move vehicles to Sky Stadium were unsuccessful, with some protesters believing the offer was a trap.

Yesterday afternoon, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said many people at the protest had a lot of mistrust but he encouraged vehicle owners to act in good faith.

The ongoing disruption had become “untenable” and police were now preparing to tow vehicles to free up roads.

People who did not move cars promptly and had them removed would not immediately get the vehicles back, Coster said.

He again urged people to use what police said was secure parking at the stadium, about 1km from Parliament.

“We’re holding out a genuine option here,” Coster said.

Reports overseas from similar convoy and anti-vaccine mandate protests showed removing demonstrators was not easy.

Police were wary of inflaming or escalating tensions, but towing cars was crucial to getting the city functioning properly, Coster said.

“If police have to go in and close that thing down, many people will be hurt.”

Coster said police would tolerate lawful protest and it would probably take a few days to clear all the vehicles.

“We have made a request to the New Zealand Defence Force for assistance with towing and we are awaiting the outcome of that request,” he added.

It’s understood the Defence Force was considering its options yesterday afternoon and deciding how to respond to Coster’s request.

Under the Defence Act, any involvement by the Defence Force in helping clear the protest could require either the Prime Minister or Defence Minister to authorise it.

In a statement, the Defence Force said: “There are a number of factors to be considered not least the suitability of military recovery vehicles for this task and the availability of trained personnel, which we have discussed with NZ Police. Discussions are ongoing.

Police also appealed to tow truck operators to help, earlier saying safety concerns had prevented them from taking up the task.

However RNZ reports the real reason many tow truck companies did not want to get involved was because they sympathised with the protesters.

“There’s all different reasons being put forward, but the reason that the majority of my colleagues don’t want to put their tow trucks out there is because they are sympathetic to what’s going on in Parliament,” said Greg Cox, who owns Wellington’s Cox Heavy Salvage.

Not wanting to sour their relationship with police, Cox said some operators had made up excuses for not lending a hand in the towing operation.

Meanwhile National Party leader Chris Luxon says he still feels safe inside the Parliament building, but is feeling for the people of Wellington who have been affected.

Luxon has had to move out of his usual apartment due to the interruption caused by protesters.

Asked if he felt safe, he told TVNZ’s Breakfast show: “I feel really safe.”

Asked how he would have responded to the protesters had he been in Government, he acknowledged how frustrated many businesses and ordinary Kiwis were now.

A statement attributed to seven groups, including Freedom Alliance, Convoy 2022 NZ and The Freedom and Rights Coalition, said protesters were a diverse group that believed mandates “must end”.

The group tried to distance itself from claims occupiers have harassed passers-by, spat at a bus driver, and bullied children for wearing masks.

“We are a peaceful movement and do not condone or tolerate aggression or intimidation. We have a dedicated internal security team to maintain a peaceful operation.

“We speak for the vast majority of the protesters present, but not all. Accusations have been made about threatening behaviour and we encourage the police to work with us on that to identify those involved.”

The groups said they were mindful of public safety and wanted to minimise disruption to the people of Wellington.

“We strongly urge the government to engage – they want a solution, we want a solution.”

Protesters continued to sing, dance, chant and give speeches yesterday.

Kita, 21, said she’d been staying on Bunny St near Parliament for the past week.

She travelled from Auckland, joining family and friends.

About 20 people were in her group, from toddlers to grandparents, she said.

Kita said she was standing up for the rights of younger family members, and any future children.

“I don’t want any of them getting jabbed without their parents knowing,” she said.

No vaccine mandates currently apply to children but Kita said that might happen one day and she didn’t trust the Government.

Despite police and parking wardens seeking to move people, Kita said her group would not be going anywhere.

“It’s not right, they shouldn’t be doing that, because we are here for something important,” she said.

Some protesters were seen removing number plates and registration to avoid being ticketed. Others attached fake plates instead.

The protesters have aired a range of views and grievances.

“There’s just so much bureaucracy that’s making it hard to get ahead in New Zealand,” one speaker said.

Although vaccine mandates and broader restrictions related to Covid-19 have dominated protester discussions, that speaker also spoke of the country’s housing crisis.

A boy performed hula hoops in front of a barrier separating police from protesters.

Later, protesters were being treated to a new form of entertainment – Parliament TV.

The live account of events inside the building was streamed through loudspeakers set up by Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard.

But demonstrators had several loudspeakers of their own, trying to drown out the sound of Parliament TV.

The protest groups said it was unable to respond to specific media questions but was working to appoint a spokesperson and hoped to provide answers “in the coming days”.

“We therefore challenge Labour to run a national poll and share the results, asking New Zealanders: ‘Do you support the mandates?'”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was receiving regular updates from police on the protest.

Asked how long she would tolerate the protest lasting, Ardern replied: “That’s actually not the question for us. Ultimately, of course we have protests in this place all time, and we accept that as politicians.”

The PM added: “But what we’ve seen out here is something quite different.”

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