A protester confronts the police during an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne on Saturday. AFP
Australia recorded 1,882 new coronavirus cases on Saturday as Victoria, home to more than a quarter of the country's population, reported 535 new locally acquired coronavirus cases in the 24-hour period to Friday evening, health officials said on Saturday.
Thousands of police officers in Sydney and Melbourne were deployed to quell planned anti-lockdown protests, setting up checkpoints and barricades.
Australia’s Victoria state reported its biggest one-day rise in COVID-19 cases of the year on Thursday as a surge in vaccinations nationwide raised hope for easing restrictions with almost 70% of the adult population having had a first dose.
Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne, detected 514 new infections, exceeding the year's previous daily high of 473 on Monday. Of the infections, 62 were linked to existing outbreaks, the health department said on its Twitter account.
Victoria police fire pepper spray during a clash with protesters at a Rally for Freedom in Melbourne on Saturday. AP
Several hundred people managed to gather in downtown Melbourne and local media reported some early arrests and clashes with the police, as 2,000 officers made the area virtually a no-go zone. Public transport and ride shares into the city were suspended.
In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were also deployed to the streets.
Australia has been grappling with an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus since mid-June, with both Sydney and Melbourne, and the capital Canberra, in strict lockdowns for weeks now.
Victoria police clash with protesters during a Rally for Freedom in Melbourne, Australia, on Saturday. AP
New South Wales reported 1,331 COVID-19 cases, mostly in state capital Sydney, and six deaths, while Victoria had 535 new infections, again mostly in state capital Melbourne, along with one death.
Most of the restrictions in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are to remain until at least 70% of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, which based on the current pace of inoculations could be in late October or early November.
A high rate of compliance with public health orders has helped Australia keep the number of infections relatively low, with just under 85,000 total cases and 1,145 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The vast majority of Australians support vaccinations and the public health measures, but there have been sporadic and sometimes violent protests against the management of the pandemic.
New South Wales police on Friday issued a warning against the protests, saying participants could expect to face penalties ranging from a fine to being arrested.
Australia has fared better than many countries in the pandemic, with around 7,920 cases, 104 deaths and fewer than 400 active cases, but the recent jump has stoked fears of a second wave of COVID-19, echoing concerns expressed in other countries.
Other states and territories have recorded few or zero cases in recent weeks and are continuing to reopen their economies, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison told residents not to become complacent.
More than five million residents of Melbourne will be locked down for six weeks after coronavirus cases surged in Australia's second-biggest city, authorities announced Tuesday.
Sydney, which is in its eighth week of lockdown, is the epicentre of Australia's third COVID-19 wave, while Melbourne, Canberra and Darwin — which begun its curbs on Monday — are all in lockdown, cases have proved stubbornly difficult to suppress.
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