Concern for vulnerable residents in Melbourne public housing towers in 'hard lockdown' as coronavirus spreads

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says the concern is that the "virus can spread like wildfire" in large apartment blocks that have now emerged as new clusters in the state, with concern mounting for vulnerable residents.

Police are seen enforcing a lockdown at public housing towers in Racecourse road in Flemington, Melbourne.

Police are seen enforcing a lockdown at public housing towers in Racecourse road in Flemington, Melbourne. Source: AAP

The lockdown of nine Melbourne public housing towers to fight a coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns about vulnerable residents, some of whom have fled war and family violence

The crowded inner-city towers will be locked down for the next five days, as part of an extension to the suburban lockdowns in place in Victoria's coronavirus hotspots, said Premier Daniel Andrews. 

A group of 3,000 adults and children across 1,345 units will be forbidden to leave for any reason, but the premier said food and other supplies would be delivered to them.

Police are seen enforcing a lockdown at public housing towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington, Melbourne.
Police are seen enforcing a lockdown at public housing towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington, Melbourne. Source: AAP

Mr Andrews said the "hard lockdown" for the public housing towers applies "as of right now", as he reported 108 new cases of COVID-19, Victoria's second highest daily total.

"We have sufficient evidence to take these steps. They're not taken lightly," he said.

"We at no point underestimate how challenging this will be for families and businesses, particularly families, many of whom are vulnerable in those public housing towers, but for their safety and safety of all Victorians this is the right approach."

The public housing towers are located in Flemington and North Melbourne.

The Victorian Council of Social Service issued a media statement on Saturday, describing the public housing lockdowns as "a dramatic move" but one that was being done "to protect tenants and to save lives".

"This is public health decision, and we don’t quibble with that. The last thing we want is COVID ripping through these buildings, infecting tenants en masse," said VCOSS CEO Emma King.

She said the lockdowns had to be done with sensitivity, given some public housing tenants were extremely vulnerable.

"Some public housing tenants have fled war or family violence. Some are dealing with mental health challenges. Many don’t speak English as their first language. Many others work casual or insecure jobs," Ms King said.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Source: AAP

"This lockdown will scare many people, and trigger memories of past trauma.

"Being told you cannot leave your house, or seeing police on your doorstep, can be quiet confronting. Being cut off from outside support services and family networks will also be damaging for many people."

She said it was important every tenant knew what was going on, understood why it was happening an had the support they needed.

This included appropriate support for people with disabilities, chronic illnesses and mental health challenges and access to tenants from relevant community organisations and support services.

Within minutes of the premier's announcements, police swarmed the housing estates, blocking entrances.

Mr Andrews said more tailored responses to apply tower by tower could be announced after the five day-period when the tests results are collected.

"The close confines and the shared community spaces within these large apartment blocks means this virus can spread like wildfire," he said.

"And just like fire, we need to put a perimeter around it to stop it from spreading."

Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt, whose federal electorate covers some of the estates, said his office had been alerted to a lack of pandemic information in the buildings and had approached the health department in March about getting mail room access to post leaflets in 13 different languages.

The department's response, obtained by AAP, says its social distancing policy made it impossible to access the building and recommended sending information via Australia Post.

Mr Bandt did this but did not have the funds to mail everyone.

Shadow health minister for Victoria Georgie Crozier said the potential for family violence over the next five days was "very real".

Shadow housing minister Tim Smith said police should be accompanied by translators, doctors, community leaders, and drug and alcohol counsellors.

Flemington housing resident Hoda God, 31, told AAP families in her building were struggling as soon as police enforced the lockdown.

A woman with three children was barred from going out to buy formula for her baby and another woman with a five-year-old was not allowed out to buy groceries for dinner, she said.

"They need groceries now," she said. "She has nothing to cook tonight."

Deputy chief medical officer Annaliese van Diemen attributed an outbreak of up to 30 cases across the public housing towers to close-quarters living and shared spaces.

Health workers will go door-to-door doing virus tests and Mr Andrews warned that rejecting a test could mean the hard lockdown runs longer.

'A very real concern'

The state figure of 108 new cases is the biggest jump since 28 March, when the state recorded 111 new cases in a single day.

"These numbers are a very real concern to all of us. If you have symptoms, come forward to get tested," Mr Andrews said.

The postcodes 3031 (Flemington and Kensington) and 3051 (North Melbourne) have been added to the list of postcodes in lockdown until at least the end of the month. 

The stay-at-home orders will apply from 11.59pm Saturday to the two additional postcodes, bringing the locked down areas to a total of 12 postcodes, or 39 suburbs. 

People in these suburbs only have four reasons to leave their homes: for work or school "if you can’t do it from home", for care or caregiving, for daily exercise, or to get food and other essentials.

"The pain it causes is nowhere near the difficulties that will be experienced if we have this get right away from us," said Mr Andrews.

He says he is heartened by some signs the case load is stabilising.

"The fact that the test numbers are going up and up and up, and we're finding more cases, is in fact a suppression strategy working. No-one is pleased to be in this place.

"But unless you find cases you can't wrap your arms around those positive cases, isolate them, quarantine them."

Acting chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said the national total for new cases is 113: 108 in Victoria and five in NSW.  

NSW Health said the five new cases are all returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

A sixth case in the state, involving a Central Coast high school student from Green Point Christian College, is being categorised as a "a past infection and not an active case".

Professor Kelly said the "hard lockdown" of the nine public housing towers would be the key topic discussed at an emergency meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on Saturday night.

"They have thought through this in great detail, not only keeping people in place, but how to support them," he said.

Additional reporting: AAP

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

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7 min read
Published 4 July 2020 at 4:16pm
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS