17 Feb 2022

Parties pressure government for detail on vaccine mandate exit strategy

5:31 am on 17 February 2022

Vaccine mandates are one of the more contentious public health measures in place, and the government is facing pressure to give a timeframe for when they'll be removed, or - at the least - an exit strategy.

Anti-vaccine, anti-mandate protest in Wellington on Parliament grounds on 16 February 2022.

Anti-vaccine, anti-mandate protest in Wellington on Parliament grounds on 16 February 2022. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Experts argue this is no time to be even talking about lifting mandates, especially for key frontline workers, as the Omicron wave is just starting to hit.

But others - including some political parties - are starting to push harder against them.

Protesters occupying Parliament have made their views clear: "It's very simple - stop the mandates, people go home," one woman told RNZ.

Another would stay "for as long as it takes", that is, until the mandates are dropped.

No sign of that happening anytime soon, with broad political condemnation of the protest itself and the ongoing stand-off between most politicians, police and protesters.

"I believe that it's time for some dialogue," ACT leader David Seymour told reporters after meeting with an "intermediary" of the group's "emergent leadership".

On the mandates themselves, Seymour has been pushing for more discretion within different workforces for some months. He now questions what will happen after the peak of Omicron.

"What is the data, for transmission, infection and vaccination rates in an Omicron environment, and those three things are decoupling; that may remove the basis for continuing to have vaccine requirements."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is calling for a removal of what he says are unnecessarily damaging mandates.

"There needs to be an end to scaremongering and despotic enforcement, and a return of common sense and balance to this debacle that Labour has created."

The National Party has been balancing its desire to avoid any association with the anti-vax movement with the ability to tap into broader resentments.

"There is increasing frustration, where people don't support the protest, they've gone off and done the right thing ... got vaccinated, or triple vaccinated, and they are very frustrated with the restrictions the government has, because they have no plan has to how to get forward from here," leader Christopher Luxon says.

He has called for timeframes in past weeks, but accepts it's still too early to give any specific dates for lifting mandates.

It is reasonable though, says Luxon, to expect some detail: "We really need to get really clear on the triggers and the criteria by which we would ultimately remove mandates."

Late last year the government said it was hard to know how long mandates would have to be in place, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says they continue to watch what's happening elsewhere.

"You've seen with other countries, that they have been in the position to start lessening the use of those as they've progressed through the pandemic and got to a place where you see more stabilisation and a steady management within the health system - and that is what we would move to as well."

They will act in line with the principle that as "soon as we can move away, we will move away," she says.

"We've done that with lockdowns, we're opening the borders."

The government often uses high vaccination rates as proof the vast majority of New Zealanders accept the current approach, compared with those who support the protesters still camping at Parliament and throughout nearby streets.

However there has been a significant shift in public unity since the start the pandemic, creating seams of discontent within communities who feel hardest hit, and wanting a louder voice.

It's a delicate line for politicians to navigate - balancing genuine representation, political gain, and public good, in this volatile, and unpredictable environment.

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