Anti-lockdown protesters clash with police in coronavirus-weary Australia

Protesters are arrested by the police at Sydney Town Hall during the anti-lockdown rally in Sydney on 24 July 2021. PHOTO: AAP

SYDNEY (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Thousands of anti-lockdown protesters gathered in Australia's two largest cities on Saturday (July 24), with several arrested in Sydney after violent clashes with police.

Some demonstrators in Sydney were seen hurling bottles and plants - torn from the sidewalk - at police officers, while others chanted "Freedom, freedom" as they marched along Broadway in the city's central business district. A major rally also took place in Melbourne and other protests were being held nationwide.

More than 50 people were charged with offenses in Sydney, David Elliott, police and emergency services minister for New South Wales, told reporters.

"What we saw today were 3,500 very selfish boofheads," he said, using local slang for fools.

"These are the sort of people who are going to prolong this lockdown."

In Melbourne, local media said thousands of protesters had thronged the streets after gathering outside the state parliament in the early afternoon.

Maskless demonstrators flouted rules on non-essential travel and public gatherings a day after authorities suggested restrictions could remain in place until October.

Organisers had dubbed the protest a "freedom" rally and publicised it on social media pages frequently used to spread vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Attendees carried signs and banners reading "Wake up Australia" and "Drain the Swamp" - echoing messages seen in similar demonstrations overseas.

Helicopters buzzed the streets above Sydney, a city of five million people that is struggling to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant.

Similar gatherings were planned in other urban centres.

Millions of Australians, including in Sydney and Melbourne, are currently under lockdown measures as the country grapples with the highly-contagious delta variant and a slow rate of inoculations.

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Australia has administered enough doses for just 21 per cent of its population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, compared with 53 per cent in the US and 62 per cent in the UK.

Adults in the greater Sydney region should now "seriously consider" using AstraZeneca's vaccine because of the area's infection rate and constraints on supplies of Pfizer's option, the government's Australian Technical Advisory Group said Saturday.

Australia had last month recommended that only people aged 60 and above should use the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to rare blood clots.

New South Wales reported 163 new cases in the community Saturday, and confirmed the death of a man aged in his 80s in southwest Sydney on Friday. Infections have reached 1,940 cases since the outbreak began in mid-June.

The neighbouring state of Victoria recorded 12 new cases to midnight Friday, while South Australia reported one.

Stephen Jones, a member of the national parliament from Sydney, condemned the protesters as "selfish, reckless idiots".

"Nobody wants to be in lockdown. This is exactly how you keep it going." Police said they supported "free speech and peaceful assembly, however, today's protest is in breach of the current Covid-19 Public Health Orders".

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