Anti-lockdown protests planned in Sydney on Saturday have failed to materialise, with police confident a crackdown on movement and checkpoints entering the city prevented a repeat of the lockdown-violating mass gatherings seen last weekend.
As New South Wales health authorities announced 210 new cases in the Delta outbreak on Saturday morning, the deputy police commissioner Michael Willing set the scene for an operation involving mounted police, helicopters, harsh fines and an exclusion zone to keep potential protesters from gathering.
Taxi and rideshare companies were banned from taking passengers into Sydney’s central business district between 9am and 3pm, with fines of up to $500,000 for businesses and $100,000 for individuals who failed to comply.
There were 1,000 police officers across the city, aided by 300 defence force personnel, who set up roadblocks on key roads, with the exclusion zone stretching from the Bradfield Highway at Milsons Point north of the Harbour Bridge to the City West Link at Lilyfield, to South Dowling Street near Todman Avenue at Zetland, and east to New South Head Road near Ocean Avenue at Edgecliff. The harbour tunnel was also closed.
Police also stopped cars at the Princes Highway and Sydney Park Road trying to enter the city via Newtown, and checked if there were more than two passengers in a car and if they were more than 10km from their home. Similar checks were conducted on Oxford Street in Paddington.
Mounted police also gathered in Hyde Park case some protesters entered the city’s centre, but a police spokesperson told the Guardian the operation on key roads appeared to have prevented a mass gathering.
Minutes before the exclusion zone ended at 3pm, the spokesperson said police were considering the operation a success, and there were only reports of isolated incidents.
Police also increased their presence in areas not linked to the protests, with helicopters warning people exercising at Gordons Bay and on Bondi beach in the city’s east not to linger.
Earlier, groups on Telegram that coordinated the thousands-strong gathering last Saturday were urging followers not to attend Saturday’s event, warning it “lacks an established ground team, and has been given insufficient promotional time and effort”.
The organisers instead called on followers to gather for a protest scheduled late in August.
A handful of members of the Telegram channels used to organise protests sent pictures of police checkpoints on roads and in Hyde Park, warning others not to join. Others warned the event would be a “media trap”.
Saturday’s scenes were in stark contrast to a week earlier, when thousands of angry, unmasked anti-lockdown protesters marched in major Australian cities.
There have been 85 protesters charged and about 300 people fined in relation to last week’s protest in Sydney, where about 3,500 are estimated to have gathered. While the focus of the events had been against lockdown measures, there was also anti-vaccination messaging at the protests.
While there have been examples of attendees from last week’s protest who have since tested positive, health authorities are worried that the full impact of the potential superspreader event may not yet be seen in daily cases, as protesters may not get tested.
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, addressed reports that four NSW Health staff, including a paramedic and two nurses, allegedly attended last week’s protests.
“In a democracy people are entitled to demonstrate legally but it was not a legal demonstration,” Hazzard said.
Last week the NSW government announced a four-week extension of the greater Sydney lockdown, to try to quash the outbreak that began in late June. Daily case numbers repeatedly broke records last week.
While authorities have denied taht contact tracers are overwhelmed, exposure sites released on Saturday included public transport routes from almost two weeks ago, with the isolation status of just 90 of Saturday’s 210 cases so far determined by authorities.
Daily testing has hovered around 100,000 for most of the past week, with pressure on the system so severe that one pathology provider has been forced to fly swabs to other states to be diagnosed.