Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily Covid-19 cases hit pandemic high

Protesters gather at a memorial honouring war service in Melbourne on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Melbourne's streets were largely quiet on Thursday (Sept 23) after three days of anti-lockdown protests, with hundreds of police officers on patrol in the city to prevent another rally as Covid-19 cases in Victoria hit a daily pandemic record.

Police in central Melbourne were checking people's reasons for being outside, footage on social media showed, after a violent protest on Wednesday in Australia's second-largest city resulted in more than 200 arrests.

A vaccination centre at the Melbourne Town Hall would be shut until Monday, operator cohealth said on Thursday, after several of its staff were physically and verbally abused on their way to work.

"Why would you abuse, as I'm told, why would you spit on people who are doing that sort of work?," Premier Daniel Andrews said in a media briefing in Melbourne, the state capital. "That is ugly, that is uncalled for."

Hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in the city of 5 million since officials earlier this week ordered a two-week closure of building sites and made vaccines mandatory for construction workers to limit the spread of the virus.

Police used capsicum spray and foam baton rounds on Wednesday to disperse protesters who gathered at a memorial honouring war service, prompting veteran groups and some politicians to speak out against using the shrine as a rally point.

"It dishonoured those Australians who have made the ultimate sacrifice and I would hope any and all who were engaged in that disgraceful behaviour should be ashamed," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Washington DC on Thursday.

Police and union officials have said extremist and far-right groups have joined the demonstrations.

Victoria on Thursday reported 766 new locally acquired cases, topping its previous pandemic daily high of 725 hit on Aug 5, 2020, and four new deaths.

Neighbouring New South Wales reported 1,063 new infections, up from 1,035 a day earlier, and six new deaths.

Australia is fighting a third wave of infections from an outbreak of the Delta variant in its two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and its capital Canberra, forcing nearly half the country's 25 million people into strict stay-at-home restrictions.

Officials have promised to ease lockdown rules once 70 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, which is expected next month.

Some 55.5 per cent of people aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated in New South Wales and about 45 per cent in Victoria.

Dual-dose vaccinations in New South Wales are rising by around 1 per cent a day, state Health Minister Brad Hazzard said, putting it on track to hit 70 per cent by around Oct 8.

Officials have pledged to ease lockdown curbs on the Monday after that target has reached.

Australia's total infections topped 90,000, with some 60,000 recorded since mid-June when the first Delta case was detected in Sydney.

Total deaths are just below 1,200, but still lower than in many other comparable countries.

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