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New Zealand PM chides marchers over virus rule breach

The centre-left leader said she sympathised with people who marched in New Zealand cities on Monday to protest the death of US man George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white police officer.

FILE: New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to the media during a press conference one day before the country goes on lockdown to stop any progress of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Parliament in Wellington on 24 March 2020. Picture: AFP.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday criticised Black Lives Matter protesters for flouting social distancing rules when the country is on the verge of eliminating the coronavirus, with just one active case remaining.

The centre-left leader said she sympathised with people who marched in New Zealand cities on Monday to protest the death of US man George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white police officer.

But she was concerned that large crowds -- estimated at about 2,000 in Auckland -- could undermine New Zealand's success in fighting the virus as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with US protesters.

"We are in a global pandemic and I would hate for there to be an outbreak caused by someone who felt really moved to go and share their view to then become ill," she told TVNZ.

"That's exactly what we're trying to prevent... if we had one person, in that crowd (with coronavirus) just think what could happen."

New Zealand, with a population of five million, has recorded just 1,154 cases of COVID-19 with 22 deaths, after imposing a strict seven-week lockdown that ended last month.

The most recent new infection was recorded on May 22 and only one person is regarded as an active case, a woman in her 50s linked to a cluster at an Auckland nursing home.

However, social distancing rules remain in place and gatherings are limited to 100 people as a precaution in case there are undetected infections in the community.

Ardern's deputy Winston Peters -- a coalition partner from the populist New Zealand First Party -- called for the organisers of Monday's protests to be prosecuted.

"The fact that some people think they're above the law is not an acceptable circumstance, that's what's at issue here," he told Radio New Zealand.

Ardern said prosecutions were an operational matter for police, pointing out that the force generally tried to educate virus rule-breakers rather than immediately pressing charges.

New Zealand is currently on level two of its four-tier virus alert system and Ardern said that could change as early as next week, essentially removing domestic restrictions while maintaining strict border controls.

"If and when we move to alert level one we'd be on our own almost in terms of the restrictions that would then be gone," she said.