Police have arrested 15 people after hundreds of protesters rallied in Melbourne’s CBD against Victoria’s sixth coronavirus lockdown, which was announced hours earlier by the premier, Daniel Andrews.
Friday marks day one of the restrictions, with more than 6 million Victorians finding themselves living under stay-at-home orders again, only 10 days after coming out of the last lockdown.
Victorians are under the same rules that applied during last month’s lockdown, including the five reasons to leave home, the 5km travel limit for exercise and shopping, and compulsory masks indoors and outdoors.
Protesters, some carrying placards and most not wearing masks, gathered at Flinders Street about 7pm on Thursday and moved into Swanston Street as police in masks gathered to try to disperse them.
Flares were lit and the crowd chanted “no more lockdowns”, the Herald Sun reported, while residents of nearby apartments shouted “Go home, idiots”.
Video on Twitter feeds showed police on foot and horseback fronting the crowd, and a line of officers shoulder to shoulder on the steps of Flinders Street Station.
One video showed two officers using handheld devices to spray protesters with what may have been pepper spray.
One protester shouted “Covid is fake” and another said he was angered by Victoria’s sixth lockdown.
Police said “hundreds of people engaged in an unlawful protest” and they made 15 arrests – nine people were held before their identity could be confirmed to issue fines and two were arrested for breaching bail and stating false names.
Andrews announced the lockdown in response to two new mystery cases, including one cluster which is linked to Melbourne’s Al-Taqwa College and has grown to four cases.
Andrews said he had no alternative but to introduce the lockdown as soon as unlinked cases had been detected in the community.
“There are no alternatives to lockdown,” he said. “If you wait, it will spread. And once it spreads, you can never even hope to run alongside it let alone get out in front of it and bring it back down to zero or a low number of cases. This thing moves so fast.”
The premier said Victoria would be “locked down until Christmas, locked down until we get 80% of people through the vaccination program” if outbreaks were not contained quickly.
“We don’t have enough people that have been vaccinated, and therefore, this is the only option available to us,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “Once people are vaccinated, then we have many more options to the question about whether there are other things you could do.”
Andrews said he was pleased the federal government had acknowledged that a swift lockdown was the best way to control outbreaks.
“We now have, instead of some of the bickering last year, some of the sort of politicking, we now have the federal government completely aligned with our strategy,” he said. “It is now agreed — it is no longer a point of political contest about what is needed.”
Earlier on Thursday, Andrews said “the government’s priority is to avoid what’s going on in Sydney”.
Victoria reported eight local cases on Thursday – six in the morning’s figures and two more which will be officially included in Friday’s numbers.
Five of the cases were infectious while in the community and are not yet linked to any known cluster. One of the new cases is a man in his 20s who lives in Maribyrnong. Authorities are investigating whether he may have had contact with relatives who returned from NSW.
There is also a couple in Hobsons Bay – one of whom works at Al-Taqwa College. That infection appears to have spread to family members living in another household with two of five members testing positive on Thursday morning.
Up to 3,000 people have already been instructed to isolate, including all 2,494 students and staff at Al-Taqwa College, as well as their family members and household contacts. Co-workers of the woman’s partner and of the man in his 20s from Maribyrnong are also being tested and have been told to isolate.
Three-hundred of those students had close contact with the Hobsons Bay teacher and their test results will be prioritised.
Some teachers and students from the college who attended a pop-up testing clinic at the school on Thursday were also offered the Pfizer vaccine under a pilot program.
More than 15 exposure sites have already been listed, with the health minister, Martin Foley, saying many more sites would be listed on Thursday afternoon as contact tracing interviews were completed. Two other schools – the Australian International Academy and Ilim College – have voluntarily closed to students and told students and staff to get tested after a sports day with Al-Taqwa College.
“We would imagine given our understanding of the school community as well as the other exposure sites that are coming online that we would pretty quickly pass 5-10,000 primary and secondary close contacts within hours if not days,” Foley said.
Foley told reporters that the public health team was considering “all the evidence and the material as it comes to hand”.
Genomic testing of the three mystery cases was under way on Thursday. Foley said authorities were operating under the assumption that it was the Delta strain.
He praised the Al-Taqwa school community which was at the centre of one the largest clusters in Victoria last year.
“I want to congratulate the school because we know this school has been through this process in the past and have learned and engaged in so many ways and have been exemplary in the support and systems [they have in place],” he said.
Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, a local GP based in Altona North who was heavily involved in supporting the community through the 2020 outbreak, said the Hobsons Bay community was already in a better position at the start of this outbreak because unlike last year, the state and federal health departments and the local council were working together and in cooperation with local health providers.
“The population did it really tough,” he said. “They felt they were badly treated and that’s when many people did not get tested. All of that has changed.”
Haikerwal said during last year’s outbreak, people were not getting tested because they were concerned about being taken into hotel quarantine and had no financial support.
“Eventually last year we got to a place where everybody who had to be isolated didn’t have to be worried about being carted away to a hospital, to a hotel, and they had someone to walk the dog, cut the grass, and to get the government payment so they don’t go broke doing the right thing,” he said.
Haikerwal also said the stigma and blame associated with testing positive to Covid was unhelpful.
“This is a disease. You don’t get somebody getting slapped down because they have diabetes, you don’t get somebody getting slapped down because they get measles.”
Andrews said Victoria was looking to expand the eligibility of people who can receive an AstraZeneca vaccine at state-run clinics but in the meantime urged people interested in getting vaccinated to speak to their doctor. “If your GP says yes this is worth doing, this is safe, then please go and do that,” he said.
But he said it would be months before the federal government’s target of vaccinating 80% of Australians over the age of 16 would be reached.
“We don’t want to get to a situation where the only way we could [manage an outbreak] is to wait until everybody has had a vaccine,” he said.
“Because that’s not days or weeks of lockdown, that’s months. That’s what we’re all trying to avoid.
“Please don’t read any of this as a criticism of Sydney, it’s not. We wish them well. But we’ve got to be plain about this: we are trying to avoid, in everything we do, what’s happening up there. We’ve been through that already, that was most of last year. We don’t want to go back to that.”
Three of Thursday’s cases were close contacts of the Moonee Valley racecourse cluster and were all isolating for their entire infectious period.