Tensions mount in lockdown towers, border block a blow to tourism

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A man attempting to flee Victoria’s public housing towers has allegedly bitten police, as frustration at the unprecedented lockdown flared.

The 32-year-old man was arrested on Monday as he attempted to leave one of the Flemington high-rises, before a fight broke out and he allegedly bit the officer.

He was last night questioned over assault and resisting police, as well as breaching the coronavirus restrictions.

It came as residents of the nine towers, locked in their homes for at least five days, claimed they had not received essential supplies and were frustrated by a lack of communication from authorities.

The Herald Sun has been told essentials including baby formula, nappies, feminine hygiene products as well as milk, bread and fresh produce were in short supply.

HOW MANY ACTIVE CORONAVIRUS CASES IN YOUR AREA

Some food deliveries were dumped on doorsteps as people slept.

Flemington tower resident Steve Ulu said he was caught offguard by the immediate lockdown and had no chance to shop for groceries to see him through the five days.

As of 2pm Monday, no authority had knocked on his door and he had not been tested for the virus.

He said he was eating food from his freezer, but hadn’t received any bread or milk.

“There were limited boxes of food distributed, but there wasn’t enough for everyone,” he said.

The 38-year-old runs a carpet upholstery business and said the lockdown was “disastrous” for his livelihood.

“I’ve had to cancel all my work, it is a real setback,” he said. “I’ve been working toward saving for a house deposit so I can get out of here. It is a bummer.”

North Melbourne tower resident Ahmed Dini, 32, said a lot of people were angry and that “DHHS need to pull their socks up”.

“The criminalisation of our community is unacceptable,” he said.

“Right now we have 500 armed police officers telling us what we can’t do. We understand the situation and the need to control the spread of the virus, but we don’t need such a heavy police presence and to be treated as prisoners.”

Supermarket giant Coles has donated 2000 boxes of groceries and has repurposed its Coburg store to continue supplying groceries and care packs.

Coles chief operations officer Matt Swindells said “it’s the right thing to do”.

Facing claims that residents had been left without food, Premier Daniel Andrews said milk and bread had been delivered on Monday morning, in addition to thousands of meals and care hampers from Foodbank, FareShare and other community organisations.

“This is a massive task and the message to everybody in the towers — and indeed all our partners and everybody across the state — those staff, thousands of them, are doing the very, very best they can,” he said.

Victoria Police and the members’ union appeared at odds on Monday with association secretary Wayne Gatt casting doubt over whether there were enough officers to keep the towers locked up.

He said that despite a promise from Mr Andrews on Saturday, an officer had not been stationed on every floor.

“Look, they don’t have the resources that they need,” Mr Gatt told 3AW. “They barely have got the resources they need to secure the outside of the premises properly.’’

Mr Gatt said Victoria should consider calling in the army — a suggestion hosed down by Chief Commissioner Shane Patton just hours later.

“We have legislative power and authority to be able to conduct certain activities and that’s why we are there,” he said.

At least 500 police officers per shift have been tasked to guard the towers and block entry and exit points.

Mr Patton said the 16,000-strong force would redeploy officers from other areas as required, as it did during other emergencies such as bushfires.

“We absolutely have a clear plan,” Mr Patton said.

BORDER CLOSURE A BLOW TO TOURISM

For the first time in 100 years Victorians will be physically blocked from entering NSW.

The Victorian-NSW border will shut at 11.59pm on Tuesday and police will patrol the 55 border crossings between the two states.

Online permits to cross the border will be available in limited circumstances — such as essential work and to use health services.

But authorities have warned of long delays getting into NSW as the credentials of anyone trying to enter the state are verified.

Special provisions will be put in place for border communities, including Albury-Wodonga, but other residents returning to NSW from Victoria will have to quarantine for 14 days.

The closure follows crisis talks between Premier Daniel Andrews, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday morning.

“All three of us agree that this was the appropriate step to take right now,” Mr Andrews said.

“I apologise for any inconvenience that will cause people who have unavoidable travel to New South Wales.”

Mr Andrews said the closure would be enforced by NSW “so as not to be a drain on resources that are very much focused on fighting the virus right now across our state”.

“We have got quite a bit to go on with at the moment and that’s where our focus and energies have been … and will remain.”

It came as NSW Health confirmed it was investigating two suspected cases of coronavirus in Albury.

“One suspected case had recently travelled to Melbourne and had returned prior to hotspot travel restrictions coming into force,” it said.

Mr Andrews said travel to NSW would be permitted for essential work and health services reasons but holidays would be banned.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said police would use drones and check-in points to make sure there were no illegal border crossings.

There will be spot fines for those who breach rules, including making misleading exemption applications.

Victorians from virus-plagued hot spots who try to enter NSW already face jail time and an $11,000 fine.

The mayors of Albury and Wodonga have been left reeling by the decision.

“It is a s–t storm and we are just going to have to manage as best we can,” Albury mayor Kevin Mack said.

“The regions are being held to ransom because of poor decisions made in Melbourne.”

Wodonga mayor Anna Speedie said: “This is going to be a huge challenge for our community.

“We have 100,000 people who interact as one economy and one community. To be directly affected because a few people in Melbourne have been selfish is very frustrating.”

“We have absolutely followed the rules and now our economy is being directly affected because others have not behaved as they should have.”

Ms Berejiklian said there was no timetable on when the border closure would be lifted.

“This is unprecedented in Australia. That is why the decision of the NSW is unprecedented,” she said.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk welcomed the border closure.

“We have had to make tough decisions for the health and wellbeing of Queenslanders, which included closing our borders,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“Last week we made the decision to maintain the border closure with Victoria.”

State Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said the rest of the country had turned its back on Victoria.

“To think that Victoria alone is now locked in is devastating for families and businesses,” he said.

The border between the two states was last closed in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic.

VICTORIA NOW A STATE OF ISOLATION

The closure of the NSW border is another blow to Victoria’s struggling economy, particularly for tourism operators who hoped the school holidays would help them recover from a horror year.

With Victoria isolated from the rest of the country, the Federal Government is concerned the dangerous outbreak will jeopardise the nation’s economic recovery.

The economic pain will be especially felt along the Murray River, where tourism supports the employment of about 13,000 people — almost 10 per cent of jobs in the region.

Visitors to the Murray spent $1.7 billion last year, the most of any Victorian region, but that has been slashed by 95 per cent this year because of the bushfires and the pandemic.

Murray Regional Tourism chief Mark Francis said small businesses were at a “really tricky tipping point” because the border closure would stifle the resurgence of visitors over the winter break.

“We were hoping to see the green shoots come through, and we just won’t see that now,” he said.

He said that before the border closed, the local tourism sector only expected to reach half its usual size by the end of next year, with a full recovery not expected until 2023.

The closure posed a “very significant risk” to businesses unable to afford to shut and reopen several times, Mr Francis said, as he called for more economic support and for prospective visitors to keep the region in mind.

The state’s broader tourism sector will also be hit — 4.4 million visitors from NSW spent $3.7 billion in Victoria last year — more than double those from any other state.

“Closed borders do cost jobs,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said. “We are all in this together, this is not State of Origin. Australia’s success depends on Victoria’s success and stemming the tide of these new cases and getting it under control.”

Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie said there was “a lot of confusion and anger” among locals about the border closure, as she questioned why Melbourne was not locked down instead.

The Victorian senator said there was “growing anger that regional communities … are being made to pay the price, economically and socially, for the poor decisions and management of the coronavirus pandemic of premiers like Daniel Andrews”.

FAMILIES STEEL THEMSELVES FOR GREAT DIVIDE

Families will be split across the Murray River from Wednesday, as businesses on either side scramble to prepare for the looming border shutdown.

Kyra Wright owns Lé Beat Dance Academy in Lavington, in NSW, but many of her students travel from across the border.

She said the academy had only just reopened after a 12-week shutdown.

“A lot of (the students) have been wondering when we can get back to dance and now we’re just not sure,” she said.

“Kids are asking why some of their friends can and they can’t.”

Ms Wright said Victorian parents had called to ask whether their kids could still attend dance class as they worked their way through the “confusing process”.

“This year was supposed to be our big concert to celebrate our 10th anniversary, but like everything, that’s been put on hold,” she said.

Wagga Wagga man Andrew Birks said he would be separated from his son and daughter-in-law, who had a baby just four months ago.

“They are from Rutherglen so we haven’t been able to see them too much over the lockdown period, but this does split the family up,” he said.

“We had said we wanted to see them soon but then with the announcement we met up with them in Albury for lunch before saying goodbye until we can see them again.”

Wodonga resident Pam Stevens said she was “very worried” she might be cut off from her elderly parents over in Albury from Wednesday.

“I come over three or four times a week to take them to appointments, bring meals and do shopping so I will really need a permit to continue to do that,” she said.

CAMBERWELL GRAMMAR SCHOOL UNDERGOES MASS TESTING

Camberwell Grammar School, which has undertaken mass testing of teachers and students, has so far uncovered three teachers and two students confirmed as testing positive to coronavirus.

Headmaster Dr Paul Hicks told families on Monday night that all positive cases had been asymptomatic and so far were not unwell.

But, he said, he received advice from the Department of Health and Human Services that “the pattern and timing of cases and lab test results do not suggest transmission through the school community”.

“Importantly, none of the cases was linked to the school, or each other,” he said.

Dr Hicks made reference to US President Donald Trump, saying “not testing may mean a reduction in reported cases (as a certain politician is keen to argue), but will not reduce the incidence of the disease, or help to prevent its transmission in our society”.

“We have been deliberately proactive in offering testing to staff, and it may be that in discovering cases we have been able to prevent further spread and serious illness,” he said.

The school organised a two-day testing pop-up last week for students. Earlier, teachers were tested.

There are about 1300 students and 160 teachers at the school.

“We have now had a significant proportion of our community tested and, so far there have been a total of five positive results identified (two students and three staff members), all of whom were asymptomatic at the time of testing, and none of whom have developed signs of the illness since then,” he said.

“All of their close contacts have been alerted, and to this point in time, none of them has tested positive either. “

Dr Hicks acknowledged it had been a “big couple of weeks”.

“I am very grateful to the staff members and doctors from the Department of Health and Human Services who have been guiding us and advising us in recent weeks. They have been supportive and helpful at every stage, even as numbers across our state have increased and their workload has increased dramatically,” Dr Hicks said.

“I believe that there has been some delay with officially communicating negative results to all families, particularly from the Box Hill testing centre, so please continue to be patient as I believe that these will be sent as soon as possible. Given the high number of tests over the past week, priority is being given to contacting people who have tested positive.”

He said he was confident that they could resume term 3 next Tuesday given the extensive testing.

But they would continue to follow the advice of the State Government on resumption of school.

“Clearly though, there are currently being great efforts made to prevent a second wave of the virus across the community, and as with so much else that has occurred this year, while we need to make plans, we also need to be prepared to change those plans if circumstances require,” he said.

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— With additional reporting by Claire Heaney

tom.minear@news.com.au

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