High-rise lockdown: Police patrol nine housing towers after virus cases spike
Residents of nine Melbourne public housing towers have been banned from leaving their apartments as the state's COVID-19 tally soars by 108.
In an extraordinary move, Premier Daniel Andrews said the inner-city towers in Flemington and North Melbourne would be fully locked down for five days.
"There will be no reason for any of those residents to leave their home for a period of at least five days effective immediately," he said.
Exceptionally high numbers of cases in two new postcodes have resulted in those being locked down, adding to the 10 postcodes already under strict stay-home restrictions.
Postcodes 3031 (Flemington, Kensington) and 3051 (North Melbourne) will be subject to the stay-home order from 11.59pm tonight.
There are 1345 units in the nine towers, housing 3000 people.
Police have raised serious concerns about having to guard nine public housing towers, fearing members could become "vectors" for coronavirus transmission similar to security guards in quarantine hotels.
Secretary of the Police Association Sergeant Wayne Gatt said the union had not been consulted over the decision to deploy 500 officers to the towers in North Melbourne and Flemington until this evening.
"Today we have learned that our members will be deployed literally on the doorstep of this escalating health crisis," Sgt Gatt said.
"We were only advised of this move this evening and have demanded an urgent safety briefing from Victoria Police, given the obvious and substantial risk to the health and safety of our members.
"Our members will do everything in their power to protect the community from this virus, as they have done for the last four months. But to do work like this we expect our members to be supported.
"Health and safety protocols need to be put into place for this operation, without them our members could become vectors for transmission of this virus in the community, like security officers have been in hotels.
"This safety planning must canvass all options, including how much and what assistance from the other capable agencies is required to support police in this task."
Mr Andrews said: "There will be a cordoning-off, there will be some distance between where members of the general public can go and these towers.
"This is a very significant step, not one we've had to take before but it is for the protection of those residents and the broader community that we take this very difficult step.
"The police presence and police operation will be unprecedented and Victoria Police are well placed to do that important work, particularly when you think about the amazing logistical effort that they put in during the bushfires earlier this year."
Residents were told arrangements would be made for food and medications to be supplied to each household.
"They're going to work out a system,'' one resident of 130 Racecourse Rd said.
Many workers were arriving home to find the large police and media presence. Police were stopping cars to check who were residents.
The flats already have hand sanitiser at main entry and exit points.
Many communities from African nations now call the tower flats home.
The 20-storey towers at Flemington were built in the 1960s to cope with Melbourne's population boom, as tens of thousands of migrants arrived mainly from Europe.
The nearby low-level "walk-ups" were demolished in the past 18 months to make way for the state government's redevelopment of the Debney Precinct.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council has raised more than $15,000 to assist residents of the nine public housing towers.
The Victorian union state the donated funds will be used to provide employment advice, representation and financial support for residents.
Because of the high-density nature of the public housing towers, Mr Andrews said: "... the number of shared facilities - everything from laundries to obviously access and egress points, lifts - the public health advice is to close those nine towers.
"There will be no reason for any of those residents to leave their home for a period of at least five days effective immediately.
"We don't take that step lightly.
"We know and understand it is a big cohort, a big group of people many of whom are amongst the most vulnerable.
"The risk to public health at a personal and family level, the health and wellbeing of those residents who live very close to each other, the fact that there are positive cases in some of those towers and logical patterns of movement, friendship and family groups mean that the best and most appropriate step is it hard lockdown in those nine towers.
"The order is made for 14 days, that's a function of the act. It can be rescinded at any point. "The nine towers that are being locked down will be locked down for at least five days, because that is deemed the appropriate period to test everybody - every single resident other than those who have already tested positive, across those towers and to have those tests processed by the labs.
"That data will then guide us as to what the next steps should be, but at this stage it is at least that five-day hard lockdown effective from right now."
Victoria's coronavirus case spike of 108 is the second highest number of cases recorded in a 24 hour period since the health crisis began.
Twenty five Victorians are in hospital with three in intensive care.
It is only the second time the state has had a daily increase of more than 100, the only higher tally 111 on March 28.
Sixty-nine of the 108 are under investigation today.
Mr Andrews said: "Many thousands of Victorians need to be monitored and supported."
Businesses in those affected suburbs will receive support in line with the other 10 postcodes already locked down.
Mr Andrews said the additional postcodes would be reassessed at the end of the month or some time before, along with the 10 postcodes already in lockdown.
Mr Andrews urged anyone with symptoms, even mild symptoms to come forward and get tested.
"That gives us the most complete picture of where the virus is and it allows us to bring the fight to the virus, much like a bushfire and this is a public health bushfire," he said.
"We need to contain it and ultimately put it out.
"If you can't find it, if you don't know where it is because people aren't getting tested, then that task becomes much, much harder."
While testing will not be compulsory for those in the nine locked-down public housing towers, Mr Andrews warned that those who refused to be tested would face a longer stint in mandatory quarantine.
"If you were to refuse a test, you would stay locked down in your unit or flat, and the length of that time is something I will get advice from the public health team about," he said.
"There's no reason not to be tested."
Housing Minister Richard Wynne said of the towers: "They are all characterised by having common lifts, common entrances and common walkways within the flats themselves so on the expert advice of the Chief Health Officer we believe that they present an acute challenge going forward."
Mr Wynne said people living in these public housing towers were some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
"Many of them are subject to co-morbidities and we want to ensure that we wrap around them all of the services that they are going to need, not just over the next five days or indeed potentially the next 14 days, but going forward that we provide them with all of the support they need to maintain their tenancy but obviously to maintain their wellness also," he said.
Mr Andrews said anyone living in one of the towers would not be allowed to leave their unit, their dwelling within that tower for any reason.
"If I can draw an analogy, it is not dissimilar to the way aged care facilities are treated if there is a positive case, let alone an outbreak, in an aged care facility - such is the vulnerability and the susceptibility of many in that cohort, many residents in those towers, that to do anything else, as difficult, as unique as these steps are - unprecedented - would be to not follow the public health advice and pose an unacceptable risk to the health and well being of those who live in the towers and, by extension, the health and wellbeing of every single Victorian.
Mr Andrews said specific arrangements would be made for anybody who needed medical care out of those public housing towers.
"Whether it be physical health, mental health, food, supplies, all of those sorts of issues will be dealt with and we're confident we have - that work has already started. The planning for that delivery for that has already started.
"We will have more to say about that tomorrow by way of personal support," he said.
He added: "If you're in one of the towers the minister has just read out, you will not be allowed to leave your unit, your dwelling within that tower, for any reason.
"The fact is we can't go back to normal, where if you have a sniffle you go about your business. This is wildly infectious. All of us must accept the fact we can't go back to normal. We have to go back or find a COVID-normal".
Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen said: "We had at least 23 cases linked to this cluster. I know that today we have linked at least another three, if not four or five cases to this cluster across the two groups of housing estates ... I suspect it will be up to 30 by the end of the day".
Dr van Diemen said that genetic testing on recent positive cases has shown that the strain COVID-19 that is currently active in Victoria is not linked to the original outbreak of the virus.
"We don't have genetic sequencing on everything from the last couple of weeks. It's a long process, it takes a week if not longer," she said.
"The most recent sequencing that we have does indicate that the strains we have at the moment are not the same strains that were circulating in March and April.
When asked if the strain found from recent testing was related to hotel quarantine, Dr Van Dieman responded: "I'm not going to comment on quarantine matters for the moment."
Mr Andrews said he did not think it was inevitable that all of Melbourne would be locked down in future, but said he could not rule it out.
He said unless and until that vaccine was developed and then administered to every single Victorian we would have to live with and embrace a COVID-normal, not business as usual.
"The fact that we have this much virus in the community is a concern. The fact that we're finding it, that is a good thing because it means we can then do the contact tracing, have people isolated at home, get people the care and support they need and further limit the transmission of this wildly infectious virus."
HOTEL QUARANTINE AN "AWFUL SITUATION": TRAVELLER
A woman quarantined in the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn has taken to social media to describe "the awful situation".
Megan Clement, who said she was 12 days into her mandatory fortnight quarantine period tweeted late Saturday afternoon: "Here's what I've seen: Security guards without masks or gloves, Holiday Inn staff without masks or gloves, guards lacking training on how to dispose of PPE (at one point I was asked by an unmasked supervisor to put used PPE into the guard's hands rather than the dedicated infectious waste bin)."
She added guard numbers had been cut in half from four per floor to two, staff members (not guards) had told her they were moving between different hotels for shifts and incredibly external guests were still booking into the hotel, as it remained bookable online.
A guard had come to her hotel door as late as Friday night without a mask, to hand over a delivery, Ms Clement said.