Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cancelled her visit to a pop-up vaccination clinic at a Whanganui petrol station because of a hostile protest by more than 200 anti-vaxxers.
The protestors chanted, waved flags and placards, and shouted at kaumātua, health officials, local politicians, media and vaccination nurses manning the pop-up clinic in the mobile health bus.
The Prime Minister did not show up for the event, instead relocating to the Whanganui District Council to speak with local officials, including District Health Board officials, and media.
She said she was not surprised at the level of hostility and did not take it personally. The decision to cancel her visit was because the protest was blocking people from getting information and vaccinations.
"I'm here to try to encourage vaccination for those who haven't been vaccinated. It becomes counter-productive if people congregate in a way that might stop people's access," she said.
"Keep in mind that with first doses we've reached 88 per cent of eligible New Zealanders. We are now reaching into groups who either have concerns that we need to respond to or just have firmly held views – but we need to have those conversations."
She said she had no concerns about continuing her visits to communities to talk about vaccination.
"I'll continue on and the focus is two-fold: to hear from providers on the ground around what more we can do to support their work, to thank them for their work, and to have conversations with people who may have changed their mind to understand what it is that has shifted them.
"It is helpful for us to know what has made the difference so we can continue to share those messages that have made a difference for them."
Asked if government mandates for some workplaces may have forced the unvaccinated further into a corner, she said the government had not taken lightly the decision for some areas to require vaccination.
"We've focused in on those groups who we do consider to be high risk. It's caused them where they've had questions to confront those and to go and ... seek advice, talk to trusted health professionals and then make a decision.
"In these areas now, we are forcing those decisions to be made but I hope that also means that people are accessing the information they need to make it."
Ardern was asked about local iwi concerns that job losses among unvaccinated workers in Whanganui workplaces would have a massive social impact on already vulnerable populations and it would be Māori who would suffer most.
"I'm yet to see that that necessarily is the case. The government mandates were only for businesses considered to be a higher risk setting and were a way of keeping people employed, businesses open and people safe.
"Happy to talk with iwi providers and I'll keep doing so over the course of the day around where they see mandates that they're concerned about, but some [mandates] will be employer initiated."
She said outreach to local iwi and providers had helped identify where there were issues that could be addressed, such as accessing resources. On Tuesday, the government approved $2.8 million of funding for Māori organisations and iwi in the Whanganui, southern Taranaki, Rangitīkei and Ruapehu districts to drive Māori vaccination initiatives.
The funding is tagged for the local vaccination response and to build community resilience, and will fund vaccination incentives, events, and community engagement to reduce misinformation. It will also be used for work to digitally capture Māori vaccination data and mobile outreach into Māori communities.
"Anything that's a barrier, we want to make sure we pull that down as quickly as possible."
Ardern said more can be done in regions such as Whanganui which are lagging behind the national average for vaccination.
"Accessibility is one thing – making sure providers do have the ability and the resources to go out and reach into those communities, and just street by street, door by door. I hear there is a bit of a lag here but I have absolute faith that this community can do it.
"It is about reaching every single corner because the virus can easily get into every single corner. We've already seen that where it has managed to get across the border it has gone into smaller or more rural and isolated communities, quite easily, so our vaccine must reach those areas."