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One year ago, nine public housing towers in Melbourne were locked down as a second wave of Covid-19 loomed. An investigation by the Victorian ombudsman has found the government’s directive went against advice from public health officials.

By Santilla Chingaipe.

What really happened in the tower lockdowns

The Flemington public housing tower on July 9 last year.
Credit: Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

It was two hours before midnight, on Friday, July 3, a year ago today. Senior officials from Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services were meeting to discuss possible quarantine measures for residents in public housing towers in Melbourne.

Almost two dozen Covid-19 cases were connected to three of the towers. At that meeting, for the first time, officials began to discuss the possibility of imposing a “temporary quarantine order” on the towers. The meeting continued throughout the night and into the morning. It would set off a chain of events that would dramatically affect the lives of thousands of people, who would become subjected to some of the harshest lockdown measures in the world.

On Saturday, July 4, the state’s deputy chief health officer, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, received formal advice linking the cases at Flemington and North Melbourne estates. Just under an hour later, at 8.15am, another meeting was convened to discuss possible quarantine measures, with public health experts expecting to have enough time to inform the community and for people to prepare.

They decided that a lockdown would be brought into force at 11.59pm that night. It would cover nine towers. Other officials were notified of the situation and, by 9.56am, the premier’s office sought a briefing. A note was sent from the premier’s office, saying: “We will need security for this and ... it will need to be police/PSOs [protective services officers].” This was the first mention of police.

At 10.37am, the state controller requested Victoria Police’s assistance with the intervention. An inter-agency meeting was held just before noon to discuss the planned operation. Senior Health Department staff at that meeting, including the deputy chief health officer, expected these arrangements would not begin for about 36 hours.

A few hours later, the premier’s office requested a meeting of the Crisis Council of Cabinet. During that meeting, officials decided to forgo the plan in motion and instead it was decided that the operation would take place in a matter of hours. It’s unclear who made the call and why they went against the advice of senior officials. Dr van Diemen was informed of the decision just over an hour-and-a-half before it was announced to the public. As she made her way to the press conference, she received a draft detention directions and human rights assessment. Twenty minutes later, at 4pm, 500 police officers arrived at the towers in Flemington and North Melbourne and the snap lockdown began.

Premier Daniel Andrews declared that nine of Melbourne’s public housing towers would be “the subject of a complete lockdown, effective immediately”. Residents in these estates were not permitted to leave their homes, for any reason, for five days, possibly longer. Andrews said the decision was informed by public health advice.

More than 3000 people were locked inside nine public housing towers, from July 4 to either July 9 or July 18 last year, before the entire state went into lockdown on August 2.

According to an investigation by the Victorian ombudsman, Deborah Glass, the government went against advice from public health officials, with Annaliese van Diemen later telling investigators that she was “not entirely” comfortable with the process. She told the ombudsman it was not her advice that the towers needed to be locked down immediately, and that she clearly indicated she was provided less time than was needed to properly consider the human rights implications of the decision.

Glass says that as part of her investigation, she looked at how the decision was made. “We were looking at the key documentation: Where is the human rights assessment? Where is the decision? And what were they thinking at the time? And so, we began interviewing the key people involved in that and it was in the course of those interviews that the evidence emerged.”

In her report, tabled to state parliament in December, Glass found that the Victorian government had breached human rights laws.

“We saw that in the coverage, the wall-to-wall coverage we saw after that,” she says. “We saw it in the large numbers of police that were on site before residents knew what was even going on. We saw the effect on people, some of whom went without food and essential medication. We saw the impact on many people who had come from war-torn countries that were re-traumatised later that day.”

The ombudsman recommended a raft of measures, including an apology for the impact of the lockdown. “I was not recommending an apology for the lockdown,” Glass tells The Saturday Paper. “There is no doubt that the lockdown was necessary and indeed it did the job that it was expected to do; but it was the immediacy of the lockdown, that was not taken on public health advice. And on that basis, I considered it to be unlawful.”

Despite the ombudsman’s detailed investigation, the state government denies that the detention broke human rights laws. “We make no apology for saving people’s lives,” Housing Minister Richard Wynne told a press conference just after the report was handed down. “We’ve absolutely indicated that this was a really challenging time for people, people who were very distressed by this, to be in a situation, particularly for vulnerable people, but the intervention that the government made saved people’s lives.”

Julian Acheampong was one of the residents who was locked in the towers for five days. He has since moved out and believes the state government could have handled the situation better. “No one spoke to us,” he says. “No one literally told us what was going to happen. No one liaised with us. We were just given an order as if we were animals or something. It was ridiculous. I understand that Covid is real and it has affected billions of people around the world, but to lock people in their homes with police guard was petrifying for myself and for all the little kids and little families I could hear on other floors crying and screaming. They plan better for less.”

Some of the tower residents have launched a class action, with a claim filed in the Victorian Supreme Court alleging they are owed damages for an “invalid”, “oppressive” and “degrading” lockdown that failed to consider human rights. The claim’s lead plaintiff, Idris Hassan, alleges he and his family were supplied with “spoiled” food after being banned from buying groceries.

But that class action is imperilled by the fact the lawyer representing the claimants has had her licence cancelled by the state’s Legal Services Board. Serene Teffaha, of the law firm Advocate Me, is also representing anti-lockdown protesters and has appeared in forums with conspiracy theorist Pete Evans. With the uncertainty around whether Teffaha will be able to represent them, the residents are left without an active class action and the prospect they may not be compensated.

Another class action may be launched by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, which has been providing legal aid to residents affected by the lockdowns. The centre’s acting co-chief executive, Gregor Husper, says the centre is actively considering a case. “But we need to consult more closely with the community to test their appetite for it.”

Julian Acheampong believes the residents deserve justice for what they were forced to endure. “If afforded the opportunity to go to court and have a comprehensive case that outlines the violations of the Dan Andrews government and its right to protect the rights of residents of public housing, I feel like the full force of the law should be handed down on every single government official [and they] should be responsible for what took place.”

The ombudsman’s report also found that racist and classist stereotypes may have factored into the response, with government documents asserting there were “security concerns, suggesting the towers were a hotbed of criminality and non-compliance”. The ombudsman found the evidence was the “vast majority were law-abiding people, just like other Australians”. She wrote: “It is unimaginable that such stereotypical assumptions, leading to the ‘theatre of policing’ that followed, would have accompanied the response to an outbreak of COVID-19 in a luxury apartment block.” As Glass told The Saturday Paper: “There is no other explanation that I can come up with for why some of the things were done in the way that they were.”

Gregor Husper said many residents felt vindicated by Glass’s findings. “That’s why when people within those towers saw it with that lens, it was later shown to be correct,” he said.

“You can’t find that sort of response in a residential tower in a leafy suburb. Why do they always describe the flats as marginalised and ethnically diverse? The very fact that they are using that language … that’s how they consider it. That’s how they see those flats. What’s the implication in that?”

The legal centre has represented members of the North Melbourne and Kensington communities in high-profile cases, including a federal court case against Victoria Police over allegations of racial profiling in 2013. But Husper concedes it would be harder to prove in this instance. “Successfully prosecuting a case on race discrimination would probably be quite difficult,” he says. “Not because it wasn’t necessarily the case, but because the legal avenues are not straightforward.”

The state government had until Wednesday to report publicly on the steps taken to implement the recommendations made by the ombudsman. According to Glass, some will be implemented, although a key one remains outstanding – the Victorian government refuses to say sorry.

“The government has made some efforts to prevent this happening again, which is encouraging. But the lack of an apology misses a vital opportunity to acknowledge the harm caused to many people, and to confirm that their rights matter as much as those of other Victorians in this pandemic.”

While residents continue to wait for recourse and accountability, the impacts of the lockdown reverberate. “I still suffer the psychological effects of it all,” says Julian Acheampong. “I’d never seen my mum have fear like she did, when it all happened. Just because someone said that it was potentially a violation of human rights, that’s great that it’s recognised, but nothing’s been done about it. There’s no resolve for the actions of the Dan Andrews government. There’s no consequence.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "What really happened in the tower lockdowns".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.