‘Balancing Act Failed’: Ombudsman Report into Victoria’s Public Housing Lockdown

By Henry Jom
Henry Jom
Henry Jom
August 9, 2021 Updated: August 9, 2021

A report by the Victorian Ombudsman has found hard restrictions that were imposed on Melbourne’s public housing residents in June 2020 breached residents’ “rights to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.”

The report (pdf) published on Aug. 4 also detailed additional cases where Victorian authorities breached the Victorian Human Rights Charter when implementing the Public Health Directions issued by Victoria’s Chief Health Officer.

While the Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, found that detaining residents in the towers in June 2020 was a reasonable measure to contain the outbreak of the CCP virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, it was found that the immediacy of the hard lockdown was not based on “direct” health advice.

“In that case, the balancing act failed,” the report said, adding that residents’ right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty was “unreasonably limited.”

This comes as residents on one floor in the 20-storey Flemington public housing were forced into a hard two-week lockdown after family-of-eight tested positive to the CCP virus, also known as the novel coronavirus. Residents on the remaining 19 floors need to be tested and isolate until they get a negative result.

COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar told reporters on Aug. 7 that the family were relocated to separate accommodation. He also confirmed that the state government would provide “food and welfare support for the community.”

However, in June 2020, tower residents said they were left without medication and critical supplies, and were served “spoiled” food.

Further, the report said the Ombudsman received calls from residents in the towers and concerned family members about how the lockdown unfolded, with many noting that the lockdown happened so quickly that “many residents knew nothing about it when large numbers of police appeared.”

The report also found that the Deputy Chief Health Officer was not given enough time to consider human rights before signing the detention directions and did not provide authorities with the advice that it was necessary to commence the lockdown that day, July 4. The government also failed to apologise to the residents for these transgressions.

However, the report did note that in 2021, the Victorian government had made some amendments to the health orders and incorporated the Ombudsman’s advice that “detained people be given greater rights of review and be promptly issued a notice explaining the terms of their detention.”

“The Government also agreed to work with residents of the towers and multicultural communities to give them a greater say in decisions about public housing,” the report said.

A point the Andrews government had previously made in response to a previous Ombudsman report published on Dec. 17, 2020, in which it refuted claims made by the ombudsmen saying that it “has at all times acted lawfully and within the applicable legislative framework,” in regards to the lockdown of the North Melbourne tower.

Other Rights Restricted

The Ombudsman report published five other cases where sections of Victoria’s Charter of Rights Act were breached during the state’s COVID-19 response.

For instance, in early 2021, a woman and her child were detained for five hours at Melbourne Airport while they were assigned a quarantine hotel.

The woman “Tamika” needed to use the toilet as she was walking to the bus, but the staff did not allow her to return to the airport and told her to wait until she arrived at the hotel.

“When the bus arrived, Tamika saw there was no toilet on it,” the report states.

“Tamika tried to hold until she arrived at the hotel but couldn’t. She found an empty water bottle and had to relieve herself in it while the bus was moving.”

The report acknowledged that during the pandemic, “people in quarantine are often being detained by the State.”

“While it is important to manage infection risks, people must be treated humanely and with dignity.”

“In response to our enquiries, the Department of Health and Human Services called Tamika about her complaint, and COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria provided a written response regarding her experience. Although buses used in the quarantine program do not have bathrooms and stops are not permitted to prevent infection risks, people should be able to use facilities at the airport before being transported.”

Other cases reported by the Ombudsman included “degrading treatment” to a wheelchair user at a COVID test site, financial loss to a couple due to loss of freedom of movement during the border closure, refusal of authorities to convert a New South Wales licence to a Victorian one for a Victorian resident who needed to cross the border for medical treatment, and a man who could not obtain a clearance interview after undergoing the required days of self-isolation.

While the cases mentioned were resolved by the Victorian government following the Ombudsman’s investigations, the report said that these independent investigations helped “the public sector make better decisions.”

“It is not unlawful to curtail fundamental rights and freedoms when there are compelling reasons for doing so; human rights are inherently and inseparably a consideration of human lives,” Glass said.

David Southwick, Shadow Minister for Police & Crime Prevention, said the Andrews government was “guilty of having no plan to rebuild the damaged relationship between the community and his Government agencies and must return common-sense and compassion when enforcing ongoing restrictions and lockdowns.”

“Time and again Victorians have seen inconsistent and unfair enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions which is tearing communities apart,” Southwick said in a statement.

The Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFS), and COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) have been reached for comment but did not respond at the time of publication.

Henry Jom
Henry Jom