Public housing towers lockdown violated human rights

The Andrews government’s lockdown of the North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers violated human rights laws, a scathing investigation into the harsh measure found.

Coronavirus infections triggered a decision to send police to contain 3000 residents in about nine public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne for almost two weeks earlier this year.

The Victorian Ombudsman investigating the “hard” lockdown released its findings on Thursday and concluded the controversial call “was not based on direct health advice”.

The Ombudsman’s Deborah Glass said her investigation found senior health officials agreed on the morning of Saturday, July 4 that the towers should be locked down to control a COVID-19 outbreak, anticipating a next-day start to allow planning for food supplies and other logistics.

But at a media conference at 4pm the Premier announced the lockdown, starting immediately.

Ms Glass said the investigation found the immediate start “appeared traceable to a Crisis Council of Cabinet meeting at 1.45pm that afternoon”.

The Ombudsman’s request for documents from the Cabinet meeting, which are subject to privilege, was denied.

She has recommended the Victorian Government apologise to the tower residents, acknowledging the impact of their immediate detention on their health and wellbeing.

“Many residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reason for it when large numbers of police appeared on their estate that afternoon,” Ms Glass said.

“We heard that initially there was chaos. Some people were without food and medicines. At the tower at 33 Alfred St, the focus of the investigation, residents waited more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision for fresh air.

“Since March, restrictions on movement both broad and specific have been issued many times in Victoria, but never before or since without warning.”

Ms Glass said the lockdown was lifted at eight of the nine towers after five days, but residents at 33 Alfred St, where infection rates were highest, were detained for another nine days.

The investigation found a temporary lockdown was warranted and successfully contained the outbreak, but that its immediacy was not based on direct public health advice.

“The rushed lockdown was not compatible with the residents‘ human rights, including their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty. In my opinion, based on the evidence gathered by the investigation, the action appeared to be contrary to the law,” she said.

The investigation heard Victoria‘s Acting chief health officer had just 15 minutes prior to the July 4 media conference to consider and sign directions for the lockdown, including the potential human rights impacts, and that the immediacy of the lockdown was not on her advice.

Ms Glass said the Victorian Government did not agree that the detention may have been contrary to law or that any human rights were breached.

The Ombudsman’s investigation received nearly 150 complaints and submissions about the treatment of residents at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne, and the other public housing towers.

Despite the explosive findings Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews maintained “all decisions in this pandemic have been based on the very best public health advice”.

He could not comment on the report as it was yet to be tabled in parliament, but said he had been brief on “elements” of the Ombudsman’s investigation.

“There is no rule book for this, no body in Victoria has done this before. We took the steps that the experts said were necessary to save lives,” Mr Andrews said.

Minister for Housing Richard Wynne will brief the media about the report’s findings at 10.15am.

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