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Qantas and Jetstar airline staff have been brought in to work in Melbourne quarantine hotels.
The Herald Sun can reveal employees of the grounded carriers are helping at several major hotels in the latest major development in the coronavirus containment drama.
Hundreds of airline workers will be used to replace private security operators who left in recent days.
There has been a major overhaul of the running of quarantine hotels recently with Corrections Victoria workers – including prison officers – seconded to the venues.
Much of the transmission has been linked to the quarantine hotels.
There are suspicions that security guards are linked to its spread from the hotels to major community outbreaks in recent weeks.
Those have had a devastating impact, causing postcode lockdowns and the shutting down of nine public housing towers.
Thousands of Qantas and Jetstar workers have been left jobless by the impact on the travel industry of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sources close to the bungled quarantine program have raised concerns over the use of airline staff, questioning why poorly-trained security guards were being replaced with an even less trained workforce, rather than defence force personnel.
media_cameraPremier Daniel Andrews says supplies will be delivered to tower residents as soon as possible. Picture: David Croslingmedia_cameraPolice speak to motorists before they drive into the tower blocks. Picture: David Crosling
It comes as Victoria recorded another 74 cases in the past 24 hours, bringing the state’s total to 2536.
Of the new cases, 16 are linked to known outbreaks, one is from a returned traveller in hotel quarantine, four are from routine testing and 53 are under investigation.
There are 26 people in hospital, including three in intensive care.
More than 21,500 people were tested in the state on Saturday, bringing the total number of tests to 928,171.
Victoria now has 543 active coronavirus cases, however thousands more close contacts are also in isolation and subjected to checks by police and health authorities.
Premier Daniel Andrews said controlling the movement of the tower residents to ensure they isolate appropriately was a massive task.
“I don’t want people dying in those towers,” he said on Sunday.
Tenants of the towers will be given a two-week rent reprieve and those who are unable to go to work will get a $1500 hardship payment.
There will be public health workers, nurses and other officials providing support to residents every day.
“The community connector program, which is a partnership between the government and the Red Cross, will be a single point of contact for each and every one of those 3000 residents,” Mr Andrews said.
media_cameraA resident of a housing tower on Racecourse Rd in Flemington, locked down by the Victorian Government. Picture: David Crosling
Residents will be provided with food, essentials, drug and alcohol support, mental health support, family violence support, physical healthcare and support needed for those who have pre-existing medical conditions.
Methadone and other therapies will also be available for those who might need that support.
“This is not about punishment, this is about protection,” Mr Andrews said.
“We cannot have this virus spread. We have to do everything we can to contain the virus and that is why staying in your unit, staying in your flat, is absolutely essential.”
The state government is looking for a way to safely allow residents to get some fresh air every day.
Housing Minister Richard Wynne said the measures were about saving people’s lives.
“I am comfortable that we have put in place all of the measures that we need to put in place, not just in terms of the lockdown, but the supports that are now in place in each of those towers and, indeed, right across the area,” he said.
media_cameraSupplies arriving at the towers on Sunday. Picture: David Croslingmedia_cameraPolice guarding the towers on Sunday. Picture: David Crosling
The premier has assured residents who are yet to get groceries that food will be delivered to them as soon as possible.
“This is a massive logistical task but I think we are able to it and, again, I am not pretending that this is pleasant for anybody involved. It isn’t. It is a very difficult decision and not one made lately. But it is a right public health response, particularly given the vulnerability of 70 people in these towers. We will get to every single person what they need,” he said.
“My message to residents is consent to the test … and then we can reassess off real hard data.”
Mr Andrews said he could not rule out locking down more suburbs to limit the spread of the virus.
Victoria is now working towards having a controllable number of cases.
“It is getting it at manageable levels that, again, it is stabilised, we drive down case numbers and then we can have some incidents of the virus in the community until we get a vaccine, but at low at manageable levels,” he said.
At least 500 police officers will patrol the towers each shift.
Four of today’s new cases are linked to the publich housing, bringing the North Melbourne block to a total of 13 and 14 in Flemington.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he expected more cases to be found.
“If this had exploded within the towers and there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people who became infected and they were going about their normal business, some of whom might be in the process of developing symptoms or had very mild symptoms and hadn’t been tested, and it would have spread beyond the postcodes even, so I think the early, if imperfect control is the really key element here,” Prof Sutton said.
He added: “I don’t think we’ve turned the corner yet. I think we can see other big days ahead of us.”
SOME RESIDENTS STILL WAITING FOR FOOD
Several police from the public order unit are guarding the locked down public housing towers in Flemington this morning.
Police have closed the entire road leading into the apartments at Holland Court and are also blocking anyone from entering the neighbouring Racecourse Road complexes.
A group of about 10 commercial cleaners were allowed onto the grounds of the apartments shortly at around 7.30am.
About a dozen more cleaners are standing on neighbouring streets, waiting to be let into the apartments.
media_cameraPolice and medical staff outside the locked down apartments. Picture: David Croslingmedia_cameraPolice patrol outside towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington. Picture: David Crosling
A spokeswoman for Victoria Police this morning said she was not aware of any issues in the locked down towers in Flemington and North Melbourne overnight.
A resident of 120 Racecourse Road has been brought out of the building on a wheelchair and is currently being treated by paramedics.
One resident of 120 Racecourse Rd, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed that her family had not received any food to their apartment since the block was placed into lockdown on Sunday.
The woman, who lives in the building with her parents, said the family had little food in the apartment and were caught off guard by the Premier’s announcement.
She said that while she was aware that there were boxes of food in the block, her family were not given one.
“We haven’t received anything since yesterday. Talking to my friend who also lives in the building, she said there were boxes downstairs last night but we haven’t been given anything,” she said.
“We’ve nothing. Just some bread and that’s it.”
The concerned resident also said that her family had been given no explanation for what was going on and what they are allowed to do.
“No one told us anything to be honest. Obviously we’re pretty annoyed,” she said.
“This came out of nowhere and they locked us all down, we had no idea what was coming. We didn’t have time to prepare or anything.
She added: “We don’t even know if we can do laundry. The machines are on our floor but they’re outside the house, we don’t know if we’ll be able to use them.”
Victorian Council of Social Services CEO Emma King said it was “significant concern” to hear some residents of the public housing towers had yet to receive food packages more than 18 hours after the lockdown was put in place.
She told of how VCOSS had received calls from tenants worried about how they would be able to get baby formula to feed their children.
“That is a worry if people haven’t received food yet,” Ms King said.
“I have heard that food has been delivered so maybe there is some mixed communication around that at the moment as well.
“I certainly hope that food has been delivered and people have what they need but we had calls on the VCOSS line for people asking for things like baby formula so that would suggest to me that it’s a problem.”
Ms King also said there needs to be clear communication between health officials, members of Victoria Police and residents to ensure the tenants feel safe in the lockdown situation.
“If the tenants don’t know what’s going on, clearly there’s not enough communication,” she said.
“The reality is every single person on that housing estate needs to be communicated with and that has to be as a matter of urgency.
“The reality is that food needed to be there at the very beginning. I think one of the things that would have assured people would have been a care package that arrived straight away.”
The VCOSS chief also expressed concern that the locked down estates looked like a “crime scene” due to high police presence and said that nurses and social workers need to work alongside Victoria Police in the response.
“The estate traditionally hasn’t had a very happy relationship with the police and that has to be taken into account.
“Many people on the estate have come from communities where there has been war and from highly traumatised experiences, so having numbers of police turn up on their doorstep is really a very traumatic experience.
“We have to look at how we balance that public health approach with having nurses and social workers.”
Groups of healthcare staff and nurses entered the towers at around 11am with testing kits.
A tenant of 159 Melrose Street in North Melbourne also said that he has yet to receive any food during lockdown.
John, who has lived in the building for the past decade, said there are no police or health officials patrolling the corridors and residents are able to walk the halls.
“I haven’t been given any food. No one has even come to the door,” he said.
“Going by the news, there’s supposed to be a policeman at every floor but there’s not a police officer anywhere to be seen inside the building.
“The last time I was downstairs was 10am and there are coppers everywhere outside the building but not one inside.”
The North Melbourne man said that residents of the Melrose Street building aren’t being looked after like the government claimed they would.
“No one has come to see us, we’ve been told nothing. Downstairs there’s an intercom you can talk into which would take you right through the whole building. They could let every floor know what’s going on but nothing’s happened,” he said.
“I’m p—ed off. I’m ok for food at the moment but there are things I need, like a recharge for my phone, which I didn’t think of getting yesterday.
“I’m going to need bread and milk tomorrow. There’s no one here we can tell, there’s no one inside the building.
John added: “Daniel Andrews says we’re all going to get looked after – what a load of hooey.”
Labor MP Bill Shorten has said the state government has to “catch up” when it comes to communicating with those in mandatory quarantine after their shock decision to lockdown nine public housing blocks on Saturday.
Mr Shorten, who is a member for Maribyrnong, visited the apartment blocks on Racecourse Road in Flemington on Sunday.
When asked about complaints from residents over lack of communication from the government and not receiving food packages as promised, Mr Shorten described the situation as “not a desirable set of circumstances”..
“Obviously the state government had to do what it had to do, as quickly as it did it,” he said.
“Now I think there’s a bit of catch up to communicate with people.
“I wouldn’t underestimate any Australian – don’t worry about what country they’re born in or their skin colour – if they’re going to stay in an overcrowded apartment for five days with no notice, this would be a nervous [time] for any of us.
Mr Shorten added: “It’s happened, you can’t turn back the clock. Obviously the state government felt it had to act quickly.”
Mr Shorten said he had spoken to tenants who were panicked about being in lockdown for at least five days.
“Police and emergency services are doing a very good job. I think a lot of families feel nervous and scared,” he said.
“I think a lot of people were caught off guard and they want to make sure they’re not being treated as second class, it’s important we explain this is being done to keep people safe.
He added: “I’ve spoken to residents on the phone and to community leaders, people are a bit panicky and nervous as you would be.
“Kids can’t get outside, people need prescriptions, women need sanitary products.
“For particular cultures there are dietary requirements – generally people want to make sure they know what’s going on and their families are safe.”
When asked if he believed the defence forces should be managing the lockdown instead of Victoria Police, Mr Shorten said he would not “start second guessing” the state government’s decision.
TOWER LOCKDOWNS A DARK DAY FOR VICTORIA
In one of the darkest days for Victoria since the crisis began, Premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday said the unprecedented “hard lockdown” of nine estates in Melbourne’s inner north and northwest was needed after dozens of infections were found across 12 units in public housing.
In an Australian first, no one will be allowed out of the fenced-off towers in Flemington and North Melbourne while residents are tested and the source of the outbreaks tracked.
The decision was made by the government’s COVID-19 Cabinet after it was told of a real threat the coronavirus would run out of control in Victoria if extreme measures weren’t taken.
And further lockdowns have not been ruled out, with the government insisting it will be guided by health experts’ advice as outbreaks occur.
media_cameraPolice keep guard at the towers. Picture: Josie Haydenmedia_cameraPolice guard an entrance to the public housing estate. Picture: Ian Currie
Mr Andrews said “unprecedented” actions were necessary to try to keep people safe.
“There will be no reason for any of those (public housing) residents to leave their home for a period of at least five days, effective immediately,” Mr Andrews said.
“The close confines and the shared community spaces within these large apartment blocks means this virus can spread like wildfire.
“And just like fire, we need to put a perimeter around it to stop it from spreading.”
Acting federal Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly backed the move, saying a major spread of SARS almost two decades ago was through a high-rise tower in Hong Kong.
“Taking this step is a big one for Victorian authorities. It is an effort definitely worth doing in terms of controlling the spread of the virus throughout Melbourne,” he said.
The towers will effectively be treated like locked-down nursing homes to contain the spread of the virus, which yesterday saw another 108 people in Victoria infected.
media_cameraPolice speaking to residents. Picture: Josie Haydenmedia_cameraA heavy police presence was soon at the towers after the announcement of the lockdown. Picture: Ian Curriemedia_cameraPolice talk to a lady who left the public housing estate. Picture: Ian Currie
It marks the second highest 24-hour total for the state since the pandemic began.
Food, medical support and other supplies will be delivered to residents, while the government is also considering rent relief for those affected.
The two postcodes that include the locked-down public housing towers — 3031 and 3051 — will join 10 others in Melbourne that have “stay at home” orders as hot spots.
The only reason people in those postcodes should leave homes is for essential supplies, exercise, education and work, or for medical care.
Mr Andrews pleaded with people to follow the rules. “This virus is dangerous. It’s indiscriminate. And it has the potential to undo everything that’s been achieved,” he said.
Meanwhile, a hotel, two retail stores and an insurance broker were among businesses shut down yesterday after new cases were uncovered.
media_cameraA man with a suitcase outside one of the towers. Picture: Ian Curriemedia_camera3,000 residents are now in immediate lockdown. Picture: Ian Currie
Two Kmart stores closed for deep cleaning after two staff members tested positive — one at the Barkly Square store in Brunswick and one at a Footscray branch.
In Glen Waverley, the Bupa branch at The Glen shopping centre also closed after an infected patient visited, and the ParkRoyal Hotel at the airport was also shut down.
Two vendors from the Preston Market also tested positive to coronavirus, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed on Saturday.
“While it is not thought that any customers have been exposed, this is a timely reminder to Victorians to maintain physical distance while in retail and shopping environments,” the Department said in a statement.
It comes as three new cases linked to staff from the emergency department at Northern Hospital, Epping were identified.
“The emergency department is still open, but operating at reduced capacity,” the Department of Health and Human Services said.
Other new cases revealed on Saturday included:
— A teacher at Debney Meadows Primary School;
— Two more people at Optus head office, taking the total to five.
media_cameraA testing site in a Bunnings carpark.
Mr Andrews said the 1345 affected public housing units in the inner north would be cordoned off and police would run the operation from the state control centre.
But last night the police union said it was blindsided by the decision. State secretary of the Police Association Victoria, Wayne Gatt, said: “We have learned that our members will be deployed literally on the doorstop of this escalating health crisis.”
Mr Gatt said strict health and safety protocols needed to be put into place, because “without them our members could become vectors for transmission of this virus 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,” he said.
There are now more than 500 active confirmed cases in Victoria, about 300 more than last week. Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said “thousands more Victorians are now locked up because Andrews Government ministers stuffed up and then covered up”.
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.
— With Sarah Mennie
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