Thousands of protesters have gathered in Melbourne for a second day, clashing with police and blocking traffic on the West Gate Freeway, after authorities announced the forced closure of the construction industry for a fortnight due to ongoing concerns with “poor compliance” with health orders.
The Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, said there were 403 direct cases linked to construction across 186 sites with “multiple cases” having seeded to the regions.
Foley said the decision to close down the industry – estimated to cost more than $6bn – was due to a “combination of factors” but the protests were a “deplorable … insult to Victorians” that risked being super-spreader events.
“As a result of these figures, the public health team was left with no choice but to hit the pause button and continue working with the sector over these next two weeks to improve compliance … and slow the spread of the virus,” he said.
The protesters gathered outside the CFMEU building in Melbourne’s CBD on Tuesday morning before marching to the steps of Parliament House in hi-vis gear, chanting and setting off flares.
Not long before they started marching, police had told them to back down and leave, before firing non-fatal pellets into the crowd. Empty cans and water bottles were thrown back at the police.
“Attention, this is a police public order warning. You have previously been directed to leave,” an officer inside a line of riot police and officers on horseback told the crowd. “Leave now or force may be used. No further warnings will be given.”
Victoria’s police chief commissioner, Shane Patton, said officers used pepper balls, foam baton rounds, smoke bombs and stinger grenades which deploy rubber pellets.
“These crowd control equipment munitions were necessary … because we can’t allow this type of conduct to go on,” he told reporters later in the day. Police made 44 arrests while Patton said three officers and one journalist were injured.
After briefly facing off against riot police at the steps of parliament, the demonstrators had earlier headed to Flinders Street station, blocking traffic and trams while shouting “Fuck Dan Andrews”, “Freedom”, “Fake news” and “Fuck the jab”.
Several journalist reporting the protests were verbally abused and sprayed with what appeared to be urine. One television reporter was hit with what appeared to be a plastic bottle of drink.
The protestors continued on to the West Gate Freeway, where they walked to the top of the West Gate Bridge, singing, dancing and lighting flares before clashing with riot police on their return to the city.
The demonstrators oppose the Victorian government’s mandate requiring all construction workers to get vaccinated against Covid.
On Monday, riot police were called in to disperse a group of about 500 protesters, who threw bottles at the Victorian CFMEU construction secretary, John Setka, and smashed the office’s door down.
Setka said a minority of protesters were CFMEU members and blamed “rightwing extremists” for hijacking the event.
“There was a small minority of construction workers, some of them when it all got violent just walked away from it. It was hijacked by the professional protesters,” Setka told the ABC on Tuesday.
Setka said the CFMEU was pro-vaccine but against mandating Covid-19 vaccinations.
The minister for industry and transport, Tim Pallas, condemned the “abhorrent behaviour” of a minority which had led to a “substantial public health risk”.
Pallas said a recent “safety blitz” had detected close to 50% of inspected worksites had failed to meet safety requirements, which left “no alternative” but to shut the industry down for a fortnight.
“There is noncompliance across a range of construction sites,” he said.
“The construction industry is effectively amplifying and spreading the virus into communities, particularly in the north and the west of Melbourne, but also the south-east and then back into other workplaces.
“We have also seen some appalling behaviour on our streets, which in itself is a public health risk. What we saw the other day was reprehensible. We stand without hesitation or reservation in support of those orders and we believe that they are absolutely appropriate in the circumstances.”
There were 603 new local cases of Covid-19 detected on Tuesday from 48,929 tests, bringing active cases in the state to 6,000. There was one further death, a woman in her 70s from Hume.
The chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said there was still concern over transmission in Melbourne’s north, with 40% of cases in the Hume shire alone, but vaccination rates in the local government area had also grown by 9.5% in a week.
There were 10 new cases in the regions, including three in the Mitchell shire, three in Bacchus Marsh, one in Ballarat, one in greater Geelong, one in the Macedon ranges and one in the Bass Coast. There are 15 active cases in the Meadow Heights Aged Care Facility, including 11 staff and four residents.
All construction projects in metropolitan Melbourne, Ballarat, greater Geelong, the Surf Coast and Mitchell shire will be closed, with the process of demobilising to begin from Monday.
There will be a “strictly limited” exemption for urgent and essential work to protect health and safety mandating only three water projects to remain open.
Before reopening on 5 October, sites will be required to demonstrate compliance with health measures including evidence of at least one dose of a vaccine among workers.
“We do recognise that there are a number of workers and builders who have been doing the right thing – quite a number – and for them, this will be a source of considerable disappointment and, might I say, economic trauma,” Pallas said.
“The unions have actually surveyed their membership and they tell me that 95% of their membership are willing to get vaccinated. We are talking about a very small rump of the vaccine hesitancy.
“[But] the actions people are taking are not helping … protesting doesn’t work against this pandemic.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, said unions would “not be intimidated” by the protestors. She said they were aware far-right groups had been “targeting” them.
“This is coordinated, and it is coordinated by some extremist groups, the same people who are organising those rallies on the weekend,” she said.
A Victorian government spokesperson said there was no current figure on vaccination rates in the construction sector.
There were 241 people in hospital with Covid-19 on Tuesday, including 60 in intensive care and 39 requiring ventilation. Eighty-five percent of hospitalised people weren’t vaccinated, 13% were partially vaccinated and three were fully vaccinated.
There were 40,811 vaccines administered at state-run sites on Monday, bringing first doses in the state to 73.4% and second doses to 44.4%.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association state secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, condemned the protestors and called on them to “put the health and welfare of the Victorian community” first.
“Nurses, midwives and carers are exhausted and frustrated as they watch protestors fight for their right to overwhelm our health system,” she said.
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