January 26 is a “day that causes pain” for Indigenous Australians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has acknowledged, as thousands of socially-distanced, mask-clad protesters gathered in Sydney.

About 4000 protesters congregated in small groups in Sydney’s Domain on Tuesday, despite threats from Police Minister David Elliott that attendees would face fines and imprisonment for breaching COVID rules.

A last ditch effort by protesters to have the NSW Supreme Court intervene to approve their protest failed on Monday evening, with legal outdoor gatherings restricted to 500 people.

It’s a major flashpoint on an Australia Day unlike any that have come before.

But Ms Berejiklian used her speech at the WugulOra ceremony at Barangaroo to calm tensions and recognise the hurt January 26 held for many Indigenous Australians.

“We must also recognise, as a mature and decent nation, that today is a day that causes pain for some of our First Nations people,” she said.

“We cannot and should never deny any aspect of our history, or the key milestones that have made us the nation we are today.”

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However, organisers of the Invasion Day rally earlier claimed that their attempts to work with the NSW government and police to agree on a COVID-safe approach had fallen on deaf ears.

At the protest on Tuesday, Greens MLC David Shoebridge thanked organisers for their courage in the face of Mr Elliott’s threats.

“No threats from the police minister will steal their moment like their land has been stolen,” he told the rally.

Rally organisers are calling for Australia Day to be abolished and for justice for First Nations people.

“They’re out there celebrating this day like it’s a birthday or Christmas,” Paul Silva, nephew of David Dungay Jr who died in custody, said.

“(Today is) the day when our ancestors were murdered.”

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Organisers told the crowd the annual event’s usual march had been cancelled to comply with police directions.

Police earlier warned a “highly visible and mobile … operation” would be launched across the state to ensure Australia Day revellers comply with COVID restrictions.

They were out in force in the Domain on Tuesday, as crowds chanted “no justice, no peace, no racist police”.

But no arrests or fines were handed out at the rally, a police spokesman told AAP just before 11am.

Royal Australian Air Force aircraft will conduct a flypast over Sydney Harbour to celebrate the national public holiday. One or two F-35A Lighting II aircraft from Number 3 Squadron based at RAAF Base Williamtown will take part in the spectacle.

The day’s events, both celebration and protest, will proceed in sweltering heat, as a cool change is only expected to break Sydney’s heatwave on Tuesday evening.

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Temperatures of more than 40C may hit western Sydney, with coastal areas benefiting from a cooler sea breeze.

Thousands have descended on the state’s beaches seeking relief from the heat, making for a busy day for lifeguards.

NSW Surf Life Saving chief executive Steve Pearce said beaches along the state’s coast were already packed by 10am on Tuesday, with many nearing capacity.

“We have all our assets out on the water – every jetski available, every rubber duck, we have our Westpac rescue helicopter in the sky, and we have our drones flying everywhere as well.”

AAP