Anti-lockdown protesters have marched in major Australian cities, as Covid cases spiked to record numbers in Sydney and authorities warned of a “continuing and growing problem”.
Thousands of angry, unmasked people marched through the Sydney central business district on Saturday afternoon demanding an end to the city’s lockdown, which is entering its fifth week.
After protesters were dispersed, the New South Wales police minister, David Elliott, announced the formation of a strike force to identify each of the 3,500 protesters at the “super spreader” event.
Elliott said 57 people were arrested and several police officers had been assaulted.
“If we don’t see a [Covid] spike in the areas these protesters came from in the next week I’ll be very, very surprised,” Elliott said.
“It was just a whole lot of halfwits.”
Demonstrators broke through barriers in the Sydney CBD and threw plastic bottles at police.
Similar scenes unfolded in Melbourne and Adelaide, which are both in lockdown, and Brisbane, which is not.
As demonstrators were gathering in Sydney, the New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, revealed a record number of new coronavirus cases had been detected – 163 in the previous 24 hours – and pleaded with people to stay at home.
“We really need our community, particularly in south-western and western Sydney, to stay at home, to hear the message and stay at home,” Hazzard said.
Mounted police standing by. A line of officers just walked past with purpose, holding pepper spray. This could get ugly very quickly pic.twitter.com/7VcgjKCU88 — Georgie Mitchell (@gmitch_news) July 24, 2021
The Sydney anti-lockdown protest is a superspreader event in the making. If the sheer number of people wasn’t enough, everyone is also screaming at the top of their lungs (without masks) and potentially spreading droplets all over the damn place pic.twitter.com/WI2R5Ql4kE — Zac Crellin (@zacrellin) July 24, 2021
Crowd size at this anti-lockdown protest is no joke. Just marched past our hotel room. Lots of shouting and tonne of honking car horns. pic.twitter.com/StG4RoPQJI — Alyx Gorman (@AlyxG) July 24, 2021
The NSW police said officers from across central metropolitan region, assisted by specialist resources, were deployed in response to the unauthorised Sydney protest.
“The NSW police force recognises and supports the rights of individuals and groups to exercise their rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, however, today’s protest is in breach of the current Covid-19 public health orders,” it said.
“The priority for NSW police is always the safety of the wider community.”
Hazzard condemned the planned protests as “really silly” on Saturday morning.
“We live in a democracy and normally I am certainly one who supports people’s rights to protest … but at the present time we’ve got cases going through the roof and we have people thinking that’s OK to get out there and possibly be close to each other at a demonstration.”
NSW police deputy commissioner Gary Worboys said police wanted to work with the organisers to make sure people were complying with public health orders and that it did not turn into a “disastrous” mass spreading event.
In Melbourne, thousands of protesters turned out in the central business district chanting “freedom”.
An AAP photographer on scene described the rally as initially “eerie” with the crowd maskless and verbally aggressive, but said the atmosphere later mellowed.
Protesters as Queensland police look on during the anti-lockdown rally in Brisbane. Photograph: Darren England/AAP
Some protesters lit flares as they gathered outside Victoria’s Parliament House.
Protesters held banners, including one that read: “This is not about a virus it’s about total government control of the people.”
The protest was brought to a violent end by police. An AAP photographer wearing visible press accreditation was pepper sprayed as police cleared the rally, as were other photographers.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, had labelled the idea of protesting against the lockdown as “ridiculous”.
“Protest against this virus by staying at home, following the rules and getting out of lockdown,” he said.
Victoria recorded 12 new locally acquired Covid-19 infections on Saturday, 10 of which were in quarantine throughout their entire infectious period. All infections are linked to current outbreaks. Victoria has been in lockdown since 16 July.
A car rally is also planned for locked-down Adelaide, the state capital of South Australia, with police warning they will make arrests over unlawful activity.
On Saturday, the South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, has reported one new case of Covid-19, linked to the Tenafeate winery cluster.
The state is in the middle of a seven-day lockdown, which Marshall says is on track to be lifted on Tuesday.
The slow rate of Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout has been heavily criticised, with only 12.4% of the population fully vaccinated so far.
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, said the protests were putting lives at risk.
“I’m very concerned if people are not following those restrictions … When that happens, there is the risk that we’ll get spread of Covid-19,” he said on Saturday.
“This is even more imperative during this outbreak with the Delta variant than it was during the times last year when we saw similar protests.”