MELBOURNE • Australian police arrested yesterday hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne and Sydney, with seven officers hospitalised as a result of clashes, as the country saw its highest-ever single-day rise in Covid-19 cases.
Mounted police in Melbourne used pepper spray to break up crowds of over 4,000 surging towards police lines, while smaller protest groups were prevented from congregating in Sydney by a large contingent of riot police.
Police in Victoria said 218 people were arrested in the state capital Melbourne, and 236 fines issued. Also, three people were kept in custody for assaulting police. Those arrested face fines of A$5,452 ($5,300) each for breaching public health orders.
Police in New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, said they charged 47 people with breaching public health orders or resisting arrest, among other offences, and issued more than 260 fines ranging from A$50 to A$3,000. The police said about 250 people made it to the city for the protest.
Sydney, Australia's biggest city with more than five million people, has been in a strict lockdown for more than two months, failing to curb an outbreak that has spread across internal borders and as far as neighbouring New Zealand.
The majority of the 894 cases reported across Australia yesterday were found in Sydney, the country's epicentre of the Delta variant-fuelled outbreak.
"We are in a very serious situation in New South Wales," state Health Minister Brad Hazzard said. "There is no time to be selfish, it's time to think of the broader community and your families."
Police patrolled Sydney's streets and blocked private and public transport into the city centre to reduce the number of people gathering at an unauthorised protest.
In Melbourne, the country's second-most populous city, a large crowd managed to march and some clashed with police, after a local lockdown was expanded to cover the entire state.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton had earlier warned people to stay away from the protest, saying it was "just ridiculous to think people would be so selfish and come and do this".
Several hundred people showed up for a peaceful protest in Queensland's capital Brisbane, which is not in lockdown.
Just 7 per cent of Australians support the often-violent protests, according to a late-July poll by market research firm Utting Research.
Compliance with public health rules has been one of the key reasons cited for Australia's success, relative to other rich countries, in managing the pandemic. But the country has been struggling to rein in the third wave of infections that began in Sydney in mid-June.
Australia has had about 43,000 Covid-19 cases and 978 deaths. But while those numbers are low, only about a third of Australians aged 16 and above have been fully vaccinated, according to federal health ministry data released yesterday.
New South Wales officials reported three deaths and 516 people in hospital yesterday. Of the 85 people in intensive care, 76 were unvaccinated, officials said.
At least 96 people were active in the community during their infectious period, and there were a number of breaches of public health orders, all slowing the efforts to curtail the outbreak.
Melbourne, which is in its sixth lockdown, announced 61 new cases, according to a tweet from the health department.
State Premier Daniel Andrews announced regional Victoria's lockdown yesterday due to the large number of mystery infections and a surge of new cases and exposure sites outside Melbourne.
"This is not where we wanted to be as a community. It's not a decision we wanted to make after Victorians have sacrificed so much, but we have no other option," Mr Andrews said. "Cases need to be lower and vaccination rates need to be higher."