Ombudsman Deborah Glass has ruled the timing of the hard lockdown of North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers in early July was not based on direct health advice.
In the report tabled in Victorian parliament on Thursday, the Ombudsman said her investigation found senior health officials agreed on the morning of July 4 that the towers should be locked down to control a COVID-19 cluster.
They anticipated a next day start to allow planning for food supplies and other logistics but Premier Daniel Andrews announced it would start immediately at a 4pm press conference
“Like the virus it sought to contain, the immediacy of the lockdown risked the health and wellbeing of many people,” Glass told reporters.
“Victoria’s expert on infectious diseases acting as Chief Health Officer that day told us although she signed off, the timing was not her advice and she had less than 15 minutes to review the directions and their human rights implications.”
The investigation traced the decision to a crisis cabinet meeting just over two hours earlier, although Glass was denied access to documents under privilege.
“Many residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reason for it when large numbers of police appeared on their estate that afternoon,” 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.”
About 3000 residents from nine public housing estates were prevented from leaving their homes for any reason as Victoria’s deadly second wave of coronavirus took off.
While restrictions were wound back for eight of the towers after five days, the residents of Alfred Street in North Melbourne were kept in hard lockdown for another nine days.
Glass said she received nearly 150 complaints about the treatment of residents from that tower.
Although the findings are not a criticism of Victorian health officials, Glass said proper consideration of human rights pre-lockdown would have put health, not security, front and centre.
“In a just society, human rights are not a convention to be ignored during a crisis, but a framework for how we will treat and be treated as the crisis unfolds,” she said.
Speaking ahead of the report’s release on Thursday, Andrews maintained “all decisions during this pandemic have been based on the very best public health advice”.
“We took the steps that the experts told us were necessary to save lives,” the premier said.
Among her recommendations, Glass has called on the state government to apologise for the “harm or distress” the immediate lockdown caused but noted it did not agree with her findings.
“The government need not apologise for taking necessary and difficult action to keep us all safe in the face of this pandemic,” she told reporters.
“But the rushed decision to detain 3,000 people immediately did not appear to have been taken on such health advice.”
In addition, Glass wants to enshrine in law the ability of someone in detention to be able to apply for a review of the decision to the Chief Health Officer and Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
They should also be briefed on the availability of relevant exemptions, any rights of complaint or review and be provided with regular and meaningful access to fresh air and outdoor exercise, wherever practicable.
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