The hard lockdown imposed on Saturday means residents of the towers are not allowed to leave their flats for any reason.
Victoria recorded 74 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, a 19th consecutive day of double-digit growth on the back of Saturday’s 108 new cases, which was the state’s second-worst daily tally during the pandemic.
Sunday’s recorded cases included eight linked to Al-Taqwa College in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west. The cluster has reached 59 people – one of the state’s biggest during the pandemic and larger than the Stamford Plaza quarantine hotel outbreak, which grew by two to 42 on Sunday.
The Age spoke to several public housing residents, community leaders and advocates for those inside the towers on Sunday who expressed concerns about the fact not all towers had recorded positive cases.
Mukhtar Muhammad, who is volunteering with the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency in North Melbourne, said the amount of help needed across all nine towers was overwhelming and people simply shouldn’t be locked down if they did not have COVID-19.
“It’s literally like a prison, no backyard, nowhere to go,” he said. “Those people shouldn’t be subjected to that treatment, particularly if they’re not carrying the virus.”
Victorian Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt joined critics of the tower lockdown on Sunday, lashing the Andrews government for failing to prepare officers for the move. He said some officers were interrupted from regular duties and called in to police the lockdown with no notice.
He warned that risks to police could prompt a repeat of the hotel quarantine bungle, in which security guards spread coronavirus throughout Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs.
Damian Stock, chief executive of the Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre, said that in the case of the public housing towers the government’s decision to go beyond the “stay at home” directions applied to 12 Melbourne postcodes seemed excessive.
“If there’s no evidence of any infections in these buildings, then it would seem disproportionate that they have been subject to a hard lockdown,” he said.
Mr Stock said the Health and Wellbeing Act required lawmakers to make orders in proportion to health risks.
“My understanding has been with the hard lockdown that the additional extra measure and the imposition on rights and liberties is because of infection rates in buildings,” he said.
Premier Daniel Andrews, announcing a series of rent concessions and emergency payments for the 3000 tenants of the nine towers on Sunday, pleaded for residents’ understanding and co-operation.
“This is not going to be a pleasant experience for those residents,” Mr Andrews said.
“But I have a message for those residents: this is not about punishment but protection.”
He announced that no rent would be charged for the tenants of the nine towers in Flemington and North Melbourne who were placed in “hard lockdown”. The government will also make hardship payments of $1500 for those residents who are unable to go to work because of the lockdown and $750 for those without paid work.
Activity packs for children plus boxes of food and essential supplies have been distributed.
Professor Brett Sutton announced four new cases in the public housing towers on Sunday, taking the total to 27 – 14 in Flemington and 13 in North Melbourne.
He said not all of the nine towers, which are spread across three main sites, had confirmed coronavirus cases.
“That’s in part what the hard lockdown is for, to ensure that we’re testing absolutely everyone possible across all of those nine towers,” he said.
“I think there’s a not insignificant chance of finding cases that haven’t yet been identified in some of those towers.
“There’s a lot of exchange of individuals between those addresses. So we have to work on the precautionary principle that transmission might have occurred across towers that we haven’t yet had a notified case from.”
Mr Andrews warned that many residents of the buildings had pre-existing health conditions and, as in aged care facilities, if the virus took hold, “people will die, it’s as simple as that”.
Authorities were still considering how residents might be allowed to leave their flats for fresh air, he said.
Infectious diseases expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said “ring-fencing” buildings was used to effectively control the spread of SARS in Beijing in 2003 and in Wuhan as the Chinese city lifted COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year.
Flemington tower resident Tehiya Umer said it was unfair to lock up towers with no coronavirus cases and criticised the government for failing to prepare residents for a lockdown.
“We are in a pandemic; it’s not just people who live in high-rise [flats],” Ms Umer said. “They are treating us like criminals for nothing.”
North Melbourne public housing resident Idris Hassan also said the decision to lock down buildings without proof of cases was unfair.
He said he felt voiceless, and the decision to lock down was “absolutely discriminatory. We feel like we’ve been isolated and picked on.”
Berhan Ahmed, an Eritrean-Australian social activist, warned that the lockdown would create mayhem in the coming days.
“I know people with mental health problems. I know people with several autistic children; they cannot be locked in a room with five other kids on the 19th floor,” Mr Ahmed said.
The Police Association’s Mr Gatt said many police officers were worried that they were called in to North Melbourne and Flemington without notice.
“It’s not good enough. This hasn’t just sprung up on anybody. Coronavirus has been with us now for four months,” he said on Sunday afternoon.
“High-density housing should have been a consideration for the government earlier on. Blind Freddie could have told you we would have an issue there … a situation without a plan is a plan to fail. We don’t have a plan at this point.”
Mr Gatt warned that a lack of planning was already showing similarities to Victoria’s hotel quarantine management, a reference to the infection of private security guards.
“Police don’t want to become vectors for the transmission of this disease into the community,” he said.
About 500 police officers are on duty in each shift, though Mr Gatt estimated up to 800 would be required to fill the government’s wish of two officers on each floor of the buildings to stop residents using shared facilities.
Mr Andrews said public health workers would approach every room of the up-to-20-storey buildings to test residents, as well as offering services such as drug and alcohol support.
Sally Boothby, a Star Health community health worker who works with women recently released from prison, said she was worried her clients in the towers would try to escape.
“My biggest concern is them either being re-incarcerated because they’re getting out and trying to get drugs, [or] they’re going to go into rapid withdrawal,” she said.
Mr Andrews said it was unclear how many residents did not return to the public housing towers on Saturday evening and it was up to police whether they would try to locate those missing.
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Chloe Booker is a city reporter for The Age.