Huge payout for thousands of residents in Melbourne towers Covid lockdown

The Victorian government will fork out more than $5 million in compensation but won't admit it was wrong to lock down the tower residents.

Thousands of residents locked down in Melbourne public housing towers for two weeks during the Covid-19 pandemic will each be paid compensation in a settlement that will cost the Victorian government more than $5 million.

The government's lawyers on Monday defended the lockdown measures in the Supreme Court but agreed to a settlement to avoid a lengthy court battle. Compensation will be paid to 1800 adults and 750 children under the age of 16 who were members of a class action lawsuit against the state.

Eligible adult members of the class action will receive about $2200 each and children $1100.

Police enforcing a lockdown at public housing towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington, Melbourne, on July 4, 2020. Source: AAP
Public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington were locked down for two weeks at short notice in July, 2020. Source: AAP Images.

The towers in North Melbourne and Flemington were locked down from July 4 to July 18, 2020. About 3000 residents in both towers were given no notice and put under a strict quarantine. They were unable to leave the building with police forming a ring-fence around the buildings.

Lockdown reminded residents of a war zone

Lead plaintiff Idris Hassan said the lockdown had an "indelible psychological impact" on him and compared it to living in Somalia during the civil war.

"During the experience of the lockdown he saw himself as a child in the ravages of a war zone," his barrister Juliet Lucy said.

A 2020 review by Ombudsman Deborah Glass found an apology was warranted because the lockdown breached residents' human rights due to the lack of notice given and because the timing of the lockdown did not follow health advice. Residents have called on the government to issue an apology but it has refused.

A resident is seen in a window at a Government Commission tower in North Melbourne during the Covid lockdown.
Some residents said the towers lockdown reminded them of being in a war zone. Source: AAP Images

Victorian government will not admit fault

Government barrister Georgina Costello KC said the settlement did not mean the state would admit to any fault.

"The towers lockdown was an emergency response that was lawful, necessary and proportionate ... for the purpose of protecting the lives of tower residents," she told the court.

She argued the government's detention of those inside the towers complied with the relevant legislation.

"The deprivation of liberty was reasonable and demonstrably justifiable," Ms Costello said.

She said residents were supported during the lockdown as they were offered welfare, food and medical services, and the rest of the state was also locked down between eight and 32 hours later.

"It's a realistic settlement in light of the confinement in their homes, the welfare support they received and the fact that there were significant restrictions on liberty in Victoria at that time," she said.

Mr Hassan's mother Hawa Warsame, who is also a lead plaintiff, said she hoped settling the case would alleviate some of the trauma she has experienced and allow her to move forward.

Both lead plaintiffs are asking for the court to award them a higher amount than the rest of the group, $40,000 each.

The whole of Melbourne clocked up a total of 262 days in lockdown, among the longest of anywhere in the world.

Justice Dixon will decide on the money distribution and has given both parties 14 days to negotiate on legal costs.

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