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Melbourne anti-lockdown protests fizzle out as daily cases hit pandemic high

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The first morning of a COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Melbourne's streets were largely quiet on Thursday after three days of anti-lockdown protests, with hundreds of police officers on patrol in the city to prevent another rally as COVID-19 cases in Victoria hit a daily pandemic record.

Police in central Melbourne were checking people's reasons for being outside, footage on social media showed, after a violent protest on Wednesday in Australia's second-largest city resulted in more than 200 arrests.

A vaccination centre at the Melbourne Town Hall would be shut until Monday after several of its staff were physically and verbally abused on their way to work, operator cohealth said on Thursday.

"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."

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.

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

Victoria on Thursday 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.

Dual-dose vaccinations in New South Wales are rising by around 1% a day, state Health Minister Brad Hazzard said, putting it on track to hit 70% by around Oct. 8. Officials have pledged to ease lockdown curbs on the Monday after that target has reached.

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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