17 Feb 2022

Parliament protest: Towing operator says companies ready to remove vehicles

9:40 am on 17 February 2022

A towing company owner says it could take 20 trucks working unimpeded for a day or so to clear the more than 400 vehicles blockading the streets around Parliament.

Protesters' vans and cars blocking the corner of Molesworth St and Hill St outside Parliament grounds, and tarpaulin awnings set up on the footpath.

Protesters' vans and cars blocking the corner of Molesworth St and Hill St outside Parliament grounds. Photo: RNZ

Police have pulled back from their ultimatum to tow the vehicles of protesters blocking streets around Parliament, and acknowledge no vehicles have been towed away.

But they say they have secured commitments from companies outside the region to help if a decision is made to start removing the vehicles of anti-vaccine mandate protesters.

Ten days into the protest the demonstrators along with hundreds of their cars, trucks and campervans, remain embedded along half-a-dozen streets in Wellington. More people have arrived, and some have told RNZ they have no intention of moving.

But the police insist some of the protest influencers are calling for the roads to be cleared, which is an encouraging sign.

National Recovery Alliance - a group of seven Auckland towing companies - spokesperson Chris Ratcliffe told Morning Report he was aware of others around the country which would heed the call if police decided to proceed with towing.

"Like most small businesses, towing and recovery has a broad spectrum of views so there are some people who will absolutely not be interested in participating.

"But there are some companies who have spent a whole lot of the lockdown periods, you know haemorrhaging a lot of money trying to keep their staff and people employed, and you know they'll be looking to make up some of those losses and you are willing to take on risk that maybe some other tow companies won't."

He noted that there was "very little resistance" to the vaccine in the towing industry.

If police contacted towing companies across the country it was possible they could get up to 20 tow trucks.

"Broadly speaking, a good operator in a good truck in a towaway environment might be able to tow one car every 30 minutes.

"Assuming that they are able to operate unimpeded … roughly 20 trucks could probably clear 400 vehicles within a day or so, and that doesn't really take into account the heavy vehicles.

"It depends how many people they are able to get involved."

Ratcliffe had not experienced a job of that sort of scale before.

As for any concerns about operating around the protesters, he said tow truck drivers were a "pretty tough bunch".

"They can handle a little bit of abuse. The challenge they have is around physical safety and what we've seen internationally is that towies have become targets of violence and abuse and also vandalism, so the concern about some of these trucks is that it's not the kind of thing you can just pop down to the dealership and pick up.

"If trucks were damaged or vandalised, there's a substantial impact and a six-to-12 month wait to replace those vehicles.

"So it is a legitimate concern amongst tow companies - not only the safety of their staff, which is a very important thing, but the security of their assets."

Police were astute when offering contracts, Ratcliffe said.

"I'm sure that they've spoken with operators about terms, and there are some operators that I am aware of that said 'Look, we're willing to take that risk and we feel it's fairly rewarded'."

Meanwhile, a Defence Force spokesperson said discussions on the possible deployment of NZDF assets for towing were ongoing.

Four Army vehicles travelled to the Wellington region from Linton and Waiouru yesterday and were ready if needed, but no decision had been made.

Businesses concerned, but help may be coming

Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Arcus told Morning Report the spread of the protesters' 'tent city' - which now occupies the small lawn in front of the Alexander Turnbull Library on Bowen Street - was a "real worry".

"It's a move in the wrong direction and what businesses are telling us is this is a protest on top of an Omicron outbreak on top of red traffic light conditions. So it's a whole combined frustration and challenge for every business in the area."

The protest was deterring people from coming into the city and their office spaces, which was in turn stopping people from shopping in the central business district.

"What we were hearing yesterday, talking to retailers, was that they are closing their stores early as far up as Cuba St because the demand has a broader impact than just the immediate area.

"They're facing a lot of conflict and of course none of the people in these stores are necessarily trained for conflict management.

"They're challenged on issues. They're shown literature, and they do end up very intimidated and wanting to walk away from the whole thing."

Arcus said the protesters' vehicles had to be moved and the intimidating behaviour of protesters dealt with.

The situation added to a sense of uncertainty for businesses, he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said local businesses could be in line for financial assistance.

Those severely affected would potentially qualify for support the government is promising to firms affected by Covid-19 restrictions, he said.

"I also know the city council is looking at the kind of things they can do, and I imagine that would include things like rates relief and so on for those businesses," he told First Up.

"But ultimately what's needed here is for the protesters to leave and to remove the disruption to Wellingtonians."

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