Locked-down Melbourne braces for more protests as COVID-19 cases rise

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Australia’s Victoria State on Wednesday reported a jump in new COVID-19 infections as Melbourne, the state capital, braced for a third straight day of protests against tough restrictions.

Thousands protested in locked-down Melbourne on Tuesday, damaging property, blocking a busy freeway and injuring three police officers after authorities shut construction sites for two weeks. More than 60 were arrested.

“The ugly scenes that we saw yesterday are not only appalling, they’re unlawful,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said at a media briefing in Melbourne.

Sydney in New South Wales State and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, as well as the capital Canberra have been in lockdown for weeks to contain a Delta variant outbreak. Officials want more people to get vaccinated before easing curbs. Melbourne was in its sixth lockdown, the most of any Australian city during the pandemic.

State Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton warned protesters to stay away from Melbourne, where he plans to deploy more police officers on Wednesday.

“You’re not going to be welcomed with open arms, I can assure you of that … These protests can’t be allowed to occur again,” Patton said.

Victoria reported 628 new locally acquired COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the year’s biggest one-day rise, exceeding the previous high of 603 a day earlier. Australia’s total stands at around 89,300 cases, including 1,181 deaths.

Authorities are aiming for a staggered reopening in Sydney and Melbourne, easing some curbs when the adult population reaches 70% fully vaccinated, expected next month. More restrictions will be relaxed when the figure hits 80%.

Officials cancelled a traditional New Year’s Eve firework display in Sydney at 9 p.m. for the second year. But midnight fireworks will go ahead, a city spokesperson said. The city does not want the two audiences to mix.

The rates of people age 16 and older who are fully vaccinated were 54% in New South Wales and 45% in Victoria.