The Victorian Ombudsman has found the state government breached human rights laws when it locked down nine public housing towers in inner Melbourne after a coronavirus outbreak in early July.
A report by the state’s ombudsman, Deborah Glass, tabled in State Parliament on Thursday morning, said health officials had agreed to the need for a lockdown on July 4.
They expected it would start the following day, which would give them time for planning food supplies and other logistics.
However, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the lockdown of the towers in North Melbourne and Flemington would commence that day at 4pm.
The acting chief health officer had only 15 minutes before the press conference to consider the issues and sign the directions for the lockdown, Ms Glass said.
The investigation found the temporary lockdown, which was lifted at eight of the nine towers within five days, was warranted.
But the timing of that lockdown was not based on direct public health advice.
“In my opinion… the action appeared to be contrary to the law,” Ms Glass said.
“The rushed lockdown was not compatible with the residents’ human rights, including their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.”
Lockdown a ‘deeply traumatising’ experience for many residents, ombudsman says
The ombudsman traced the decision on the immediate lockdown to a Crisis Council of Cabinet meeting at 1.45pm that afternoon but was denied access to documents about that meeting, which are the subject of privilege.
Speaking after the release of her report, Ms Glass said the government should apologise not for taking decisive action, but rather for the “harm and distress caused by the immediacy of their lockdown”.
“Many of these people came from war-torn and deeply troubled backgrounds. There are many refugees living in those towers,” she said.
“People who came from war-torn states where they had been tortured at the hands of their states.
“The sight of police surrounding their buildings, government officials knocking at the door unexpected, was deeply traumatising, I think, for some of the people we spoke to.”
Ms Glass said the report was not criticising the public health officials who responded to the crisis, pointing out that “many went above and beyond to support the residents”.
Rather, she said it was the immediacy of the lockdown that risked the “health and wellbeing” of people in the towers.
“Many residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reason for it when large numbers of police appeared on their estate that afternoon,” she said.
“Some people were without food and medicines.
“At the tower at 33 Alfred Street … residents waited more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision to get fresh air.”
Ms Glass said in the months since, no lockdown has been put in place without warning.
“In a just society, human rights are not a convention to be ignored during a crisis,” she said.
Ms Glass said the Victorian government did not agree with her conclusions.