Some protesters in Wellington say they cannot access sport due to government mandates, but many sports do not require vaccine passes and offer modified options. Zoë George investigates.
Summer Henderson-Bush was thrilled when she found out she could cheer on her nine-year-old daughter Willow in rugby this season.
New Zealand Rugby announced on Wednesday that everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, will be able to play the sport to some degree. Unvaccinated rugby players over the age of 12, three months cannot play 15s, but 10s and 7s competitions will be offered. For the youngest, any type of rugby can be played and unvaccinated parents can meet in groups of up to 25 people on the touchline.
However, NZ Rugby leaves it to provincial unions to decide what format of rugby they offer and already the North Harbor union has said it will stick to its requirement that all players over the age of 12 be fully vaccinated.
Henderson-Bush was at the protest in Parliament on Thursday with his family, having driven from Waitarere Beach. The family is also involved in surf clubs. She said water safety is an important skill to have when living by the ocean.
“They [the children] can’t do it anymore because we can’t bring an unvaccinated relative to the beach to watch them. You have to have a parent at the beach. I find that crazy. It’s outside, at the beach,” she said.
“It’s quite sad.”
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Their local club is overseen by Surf Life Saving NZ, and she said the two have said no to unvaccinated people playing the sport.
“They [the club] said our children could come with a vaccinated caregiver…but how does that make sense because these children are still living with an unvaccinated parent,” she said.
They now engage in “unorganized” sports to ensure the children stay active.
“We always take them to the beach and we always surf. We try to keep things as normal as possible,” she said.
“It’s going to be a big mental health issue for families. It’s different when you’re an adult making a decision [about vaccines]but for children, they are not able to fend for themselves and they are isolated from their friends and clubs.
“I would like to know the reasoning. If you could tell me how it protects our health when we are standing in the middle of a beach and we cannot supervise our children. I do not know why they would not be allowed to be involved in a surf club. What does that mean, I would like to know.
His daughter, Aylah, 11, is an avid lifeline and surfer.
“I still love life-saving surfing because you can go in the water and swim. There would be lifeguards watching all the time. We could hang out with our friends,” she said. declared.
“But now loads of my friends couldn’t go because their parents weren’t vaccinated…it’s unfair.”
Surf Lifesaving NZ has been approached for comment.
Ethan Bergstrom, 16, traveled from rural Hawke’s Bay with his mother to the grounds of Parliament. He was busy writing messages of love and support in chalk on the wall outside the hive which is adorned with colorful pictures, slogans, a few conspiracy theories and anti-media sentiments.
He is a boarder at a boys’ school with a strong emphasis on sports. He tried to get into a kickboxing class at a private gym outside of school.
He was able to enter the first class without showing a vaccination card – he does not have one, he is not vaccinated. The second time the instructors checked and he was out. About 15 people were in the class, he said.
“I just wanted to find out what kickboxing was like. I enjoyed it very much. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
“I couldn’t go back because they were scanning the vaccine passes.”
He is also a horse riding enthusiast. He did a few competitions representing his school, but it won’t be so anymore, he thinks.
“Covid is going to spread, either way you get it. In the schools, it will spread…let’s get back to normal life and continue the sport as before,” he said.
“I’m kinda sick of all this Covid stuff.”
A petition asking sports organizations not to impose vaccines on under-18s has garnered almost 20,000 signatures online. Children under 12 months and three years of age currently do not need to be vaccinated to participate and play sports.
People over this age – including teenagers under 18 – can still take part in a range of sporting activities supervised by sporting bodies under the government’s Covid-19 protection framework, which allows gatherings up to to 100 people for those who have a vaccination pass, and up to 25 for those who do not.
Currently, children between the ages of 5 and 11 do not need to be vaccinated or have a vaccination pass.
On Friday, the Department of Health said there were 1,929 new community cases of Covid-19 and 73 people hospitalized with the virus. As of Thursday, 94% of the population over the age of 12 had been double-vaccinated.
Rugby league matches can still go ahead regardless of vaccination status, but modified matches will be required, said chief executive Greg Peters.
He said that for events organized or sanctioned by the NZ Rugby League – including domestic tournaments – vaccinations are compulsory for people aged 12 years and three months and over.
“But for grassroots and community rugby league we are following government guidelines. So in red [traffic light]in practice you would need to run a vaccinated event if you wanted to play 13,” he said.
“But, if you are able to organize nines, or reduce participants under 25 [government limit for gatherings]so we want to make sure that there are still opportunities for these people to play sports.
At the community level, it encourages individual clubs to adapt to their player base and circumstances.
“We want to offer people the option of continuing to play rugby league provided they can comply with government guidelines,” he said.
Rugby league is played, at times, at council facilities, which will determine what style of rugby league can be offered by clubs.
“Some councils have different policies than other councils, especially when it comes to changing sheds. This will influence local people’s decisions about what they are able to organize,” he said.
Under 12s can still play Rugby League 13.
Touch rugby can also go ahead without vaccination, said Touch New Zealand’s chief operating officer Grant Robertson. (He notes that he is often confused with Sports Minister Grant Robertson).
Like rugby league, national touch tournaments require vaccine passes due to the number of people attending and venue requirements, but at the community level, vaccine passes are not required.
“On the side of our sports social community, they are able to run in a vaccine or non-vaccine environment. The organizers have a choice,” he said.
“It lends itself to our values which are the ability to have accessible and inclusive sport. We wanted to create opportunities for people to play on touch, and that’s a huge community sport base.
“Everything we have done is based on government requirements, and we work closely with Sport New Zealand, as do national bodies.”
It’s a similar story for netball, basketball, hockey, swimming and tennis, which require those over the age of 12, three months to be vaccinated for tournaments and events, and while this recommendation is also given at community level, the sport can always go ahead, in consultation with facility providers, where modified games can be offered, so that smaller groups can gather to play.
So far, only two sports bodies have introduced strict rules around the use of vaccine passes at the community level.
Bowls New Zealand has introduced a mandatory vaccination pass requirement for participants aged over 12 years, three months, as bowling clubs are also hospitality venues.
New Zealand Football has declared that all players, coaches, team officials, match officials and persons involved in football and futsal competitions, matches and training organized by the New Zealand FA and football over 12 years and 3 months must have a valid My Vaccine Pass to participate.
Football NZ has been contacted for further comment.
Sport New Zealand chief executive Raelene Castle has acknowledged that Covid-19 has had an impact on participation and access to sport.
“Sport NZ is aware of the petition and the views expressed by those who have signed it. We also understand that this is a difficult and upsetting time for parents, carers and their children who want to be involved in the sports they love,” Castle said.
“Sport NZ has produced guidance for the sport and leisure sector which sets out the requirements in the different contexts of the Covid Protection Framework (CPF), in accordance with the legal order issued by the government. We have also developed guidance for organizations regarding the development of vaccine policies.
“We recognize the challenges for organizations to make decisions about whether to move forward with sport and events in the current environment and we support them through this. Ultimately, decisions about racing events and activities are the responsibility of each individual sports organization based on their unique contexts.