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'Like a cage': Confusing detail in letter to Melbourne tower residents

A detail in a letter to residents in nine of Melbourne’s public housing buildings has caused confusion about the amount of time they will spend in coronavirus lockdown.

The hard lockdown was imposed by the Victorian government on Saturday in a bid to contain a breakout of coronavirus after 27 people in the North Melbourne and Flemington towers tested positive to COVID-19.

It came as 108 new cases were recorded on Saturday. That followed with 74 new cases announced on Sunday and 127 on Monday, Victoria’s largest daily tally of new cases. The number of cases in the towers was 53 as of Monday.

"There are an additional 10 that were in earlier numbers that are now linked to those towers," Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said.

"So it's an increase of 26, essentially doubling of the numbers from yesterday and really not unexpected.

"It is exactly the reason why these towers are in a hard lockdown and why we're doing extensive testing across all of them."

Letter causes confusion over lockdown

Victorian Public Tenants Association executive officer Mark Feenane told the Today show the immediate lockdown was done in a “pretty ham-fisted manner”, with residents who weren’t well-resourced given inadequate notice and no time to buy essential items.

The towers are being locked down for at least five days while residents undergo testing, but now many are confused after receiving a four-page letter from Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen that stated they would be in lockdown for 14 days.

Pictured is a letter with a red box around a commencement clause that suggests lockdown if 14 days long rather than five.
Public housing residents are confused by the length of lockdown after receiving this letter. Source: Twitter

A resident who appears to be living in one of the nine towers posted a picture of the letter on Twitter, showing a clause that says: “These directions apply beginning 3.30pm on 4 July 2020 and ending at 3.30pm on 18 July 2020.”

“So when they finally give us information on what’s going on today this is what’s written,” the resident wrote alongside the picture.

Premier Daniel Andrews stated on Saturday it was a minimum of five days in lockdown.

"I just want to explain the order is made for 14 days, that is a function of the act. That can be rescinded at any point," he said.

"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 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."

‘These people will be very anxious’

Mr Feenane told the Today show the residents would be very anxious and confused about what was going on in the towers.

“Hopefully people are getting out to them in their own languages so they can explain it and they can talk about what the testing process involves so that the tenants are prepared to engage rather than just say, ‘no’. And that’s going to be the real challenge for some people I think,” he said.

General view of the public housing towers along Racecourse Road in Melbourne.
Victoria's premier ordered the immediate lockdown of nine public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne. Source: AAP

Mr Feenane added the length of time to be spent in lockdown was not clear to him or to residents.

“I suspect that the five days will give them enough time to at least do the preliminary testing and get an understanding of the scope of the problem – decide where to go from there,” he said.

“But my question has been, how will we know if this exercise has been a success or a failure? What are the criteria for removing the five days or extending it to 14 days or beyond? That’s not clear to me. It’s not clear to the tenants and it’s one of the first questions – how long is this going to last?”

Resident goes 24 hours without food

Flemington tenant Girmay Mengesha claimed he went 24 hours without food and only found out about the lockdown through a text message.

“On the text message there was a link describing all the information provided by the government. When I read the first couple of paragraphs it showed me the lockdown deadline is 11.59pm,” he told the Today show.

“I assume we still had time. I went downstairs to get groceries like everybody else... there was a lot of police officers in the lobby.”

Pictured is  Girmay Mengesha speaking to the Today show from his room.
Girmay Mengesha says he is not allowed to leave his room. Source: Today

Mr Mengesha said residents were being confined to their rooms and threatened with fines if they roamed corridors.

“To be honest it’s like a cage,” he said.

“If we want to go to our lounge, four people are allowed at a time. Otherwise we have to stay in the room.”

Mr Mengesha understood coronavirus outbreaks were increasing in Victoria and they had to follow the health advice and instructions from the government, but criticised the current handling of the towers.

“Do it with dignity. Do it in a humane way. The way that they did it is unbelievable, unwise and unacceptable,” he said.

With AAP

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