Public housing residents still waiting for an apology, Ombudsman says

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Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass says it is disappointing the State Government is yet to apologise to public housing residents a year after they were suddenly placed into lockdown, which she had found to be a breach of their human rights.

A key recommendation from the Ombudsman’s investigation, tabled in Parliament last December, was for the Victorian Government to apologise to the tower residents, acknowledging the impact of their immediate detention, leaving many without food, essential medical and other supplies, no access to fresh air and surrounded by police.

“It continues to be the only lockdown, before or since, announced with no notice whatsoever – and giving rise to the obvious impression it was made on the grounds of security rather than public health,” Ms Glass said.

“It’s disappointing the State Government has not accepted a key recommendation to say sorry for that.

“I continue to make it clear that I did not recommend an apology for the lockdown itself - the Government need not apologise for taking necessary action to keep us all safe. It was for the immediacy of the lockdown, that we found was not based on direct public health advice.”

Ms Glass said the investigation found basic human rights were breached and were not considered when the rushed lockdown was announced on July 4 last year affecting about 3,000 residents in the North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers to help control a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We were told at the time an apology would go a long way to heal the wounds of many who experienced chaos and confusion as police suddenly surrounded their homes,” she said.

“Acknowledging error, even during a global pandemic where quick decisions are needed, and showing regret, would help start this process for many while rebuilding trust.”

The Ombudsman's report Investigation into the detention and treatment of public housing residents arising from a COVID-19 'hard lockdown' in July 2020 had nine recommendations.

Ms Glass is pleased the State Government has implemented other recommendations including some amendments to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to increase safeguards around the use of detention powers, and is progressing its implementation of the others, including better engagement with residents.

“It’s certainly encouraging that a year on, it hasn’t happened again. The Government has implemented many of my recommendations, and I’m pleased to see greater safeguards now in place and better communication with residents.”

The investigation found while public health officials originally expected the lockdown would start within 36 hours, Premier Daniel Andrews announced at 4pm that the lockdown would begin immediately with residents of one public housing tower waiting more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision for fresh air. Ms Glass said proper consideration of human rights would have allowed more time to communicate and at least to some degree, better plan the public health response.

“This could have reduced or eliminated much of the distress that followed,” she said.

VNR Q&A with Ombudsman Deborah Glass attached

Aleks Devic
Head of Communications, Engagement and Education
0409 936 235