A leading Australian infectious diseases expert has warned Melbourne’s protesters that gathering in large groups only has the potential to spread the virus and extend restrictions.

Australian National University infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon said wherever there’s still a reasonable amount of community transmission, which Melbourne has, intermingling in large numbers was problematic.

“Having crowds is not a good idea,” he told NCA NewsWire on Monday.

“Potentially, anybody protesting now and getting together in groups, it’s counter-productive if you want the lockdown to stop because any intermingling with people increases the risk and has the potential to spread it.

“Whenever you’ve got a reasonable amount of community transmission still, which Melbourne still has, I would think at this stage you want to do everything you can to stop intermingling with each other, whether that’s at work, in the family home, with friends or outside.”

Police said up to 250 people gathered to illegally protest in the CBD and Queen Victoria Market on Sunday.

There were ugly clashes between demonstrators and police, with 74 people arrested and 176 fined for breaching the chief health officer’s restrictions.

Another 100 protesters demonstrated at various city locations on Saturday, with 14 people arrested and 51 fined.

“If there’s large numbers of people there then it’s not only actually their intermingling with each other, it’s how did they get there and what did they do afterwards,” Prof Collignon said.

“Even in stage 3 you’re only allowed to intermingle with one or two other people, so intermingling with large numbers of people is problematic until you get numbers down.”

But barrister Stephen Lawrence told NCA NewsWire the current “heavy-handed, quite authoritarian approach” toward protests was counter-productive for governments.

He said police should be assisting to marshall protests in a place where social distancing can occur and work with organisers to make sure masks and hand sanitiser are available.

“The COVID idiots, a lot of these people are driven by conspiracy theories and paranoia, so the actions of the Government become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mr Lawrence said.

“It’s going to lead to political instability and tension if the authorities don’t actually take a step back, think about human rights, implied freedoms and proportionality and start to work with people to make sure we can exercise our fundamental rights in a safe way.”

He said Australians valued their freedom and detested hypocrisy and double standards.

“We’re failing to grapple with the broader question of the legality of these restrictions in the context of the implied freedom of political communication,” Mr Lawrence said.

“In NSW we’ve seen courts ban protests in circumstances where the evidence on any realistic assessment of it is the risk is non-existent to low and certainly much lower than a range of permitted activities.

“It’s simply absurd to see police on horseback breaking up protests in the middle of Melbourne.”

Prof Collignon added that Melbourne’s targets to lift restrictions were “too hard” and Sydney would probably be in lockdown now with the same measures.

He said requiring 28 days with no new cases to reduce restrictions to COVID normal was “not sustainable until you have a vaccine that’s 90 per cent effective”.

jack.paynter@news.com.au

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