Hundreds of anti-lockdown protestors were detained in Melbourne and Sydney on Saturday, and seven policemen were injured as a result of the skirmishes, which saw the country’s greatest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases ever.
In Melbourne, mounted police deployed pepper spray to disperse crowds of more than 4,000 people rushing into police lines, while in Sydney, a huge presence of riot police stopped smaller groups of protestors from congregating.
Victoria state police said that they arrested 218 people in the state capital Melbourne. They issued 236 fines and kept three people in custody for assaulting police. The arrested people face fines of A$5,452 ($3,900) each for breaching public health orders.
New South Wales police said they charged 47 people with violating public health orders or resisting arrest, among other offenses, and handed more than 260 penalties ranging from A$50 ($35) to $3,000. According to the police, around 250 people attended the demonstration in the city.
Sydney, Australia’s largest metropolis with a population of more than 5 million people, has been on lockdown for more than two months after an epidemic extended over internal borders and as far as neighboring New Zealand.
The vast majority of the 894 cases reported across Australia on Saturday were found in Sydney, the epicenter of the Delta variant-fueled outbreak.
“We are in a very serious situation here in New South Wales,” said state Health Minister Brad Hazzard. “There is no time now 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 center to reduce the number of people gathering at an unauthorized protest.
In Melbourne, the country’s second-most populous city, a large crowd managed to march and some clashed with police, after state Premier Daniel Andrews expanded a city lockdown to the entire state.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton had earlier warned people to stay away from the protest, adding it was “just ridiculous to think that people would be so selfish and come and do this.”
Several hundred people also protested peacefully in Brisbane, which is not in lockdown.
Just 7% 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 cited reasons behind 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 on Saturday.
On Saturday, officials in New South Wales recorded three fatalities and 516 patients in hospitals. Officials say 76 of the 85 individuals in intensive care were unvaccinated.
At least 96 persons were active in the community during their infected phase, and there were several breaches of public health directives, all of which slowed the outbreak’s control efforts.
At least 39 persons in Victoria were engaged in the community while infected. Eighteen patients were admitted to the hospital, eight of whom were in intensive care and six of them were on ventilators.