Melbourne braces for anti-lockdown protests as daily cases hit pandemic high


FILE PHOTO: A lone passenger sits at a tram stop on a mostly-empty city centre street on the first day of a lockdown as the state of Victoria looks to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Police in Melbourne prepared for a fourth day of anti-lockdown protests on Thursday and a vaccination hub in the city closed after protesters allegedly abused staff, while COVID-19 cases across the state of Victoria hit a daily record.

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.

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."

Police officers in central Melbourne on Thursday were checking people's reasons for being outside, footage on social media showed, as authorities tried to prevent another protest in Australia's second-largest city after more than 200 arrests on Wednesday.

Police used capsicum spray and rubber bullets on Wednesday to disperse protesters who gathered at a memorial honouring war service, drawing wide criticism for 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 D.C. on Thursday.

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

As authorities brace for more protests, Victoria 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% of adults are fully vaccinated, which is expected next month. Some 55.5% of people aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated in New South Wales and about 45% in Victoria.

Australia's total infections topped 92,000, with some 61,000 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.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Richard Pullin)

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