Lessons from Southbank cluster

By Rhonda Dredge

Residents of Kings Park in Southbank were happily greeting each other outside their apartment block when the doors opened on June 29 but some hard lessons had been learned while they were in lockdown.

The entire 105-unit apartment block was locked down for 14 days after a COVID outbreak in four apartments.

“I was devastated,” 85-year-old Brian Pollard said, a second-floor resident on Dodds St, when he discovered he had to go into isolation as well.

“They were talking about locking half down then they decided to shut us completely,” he said, despite living in a different section of the complex to the six COVID cases.

Residents believe that the virus was spread in one of the long narrow passages that link Dodds St with the complex’s internal staircases and garden.

“I’m not going to use that passage,” Brian said. “They’re asking people not to walk through that area.”

Residents are now speaking out about their 14-day ordeal in isolation in what was known as the Southbank cluster. More than 200 people were locked down.

“We were let out at midnight last night,” Brian told Southbank News. “About 20 of us went for a walk around the block.”

Neighbours texted each other during lockdown and were able to speak from adjacent balconies but they weren’t allowed out of their apartments into the garden or garage.

Kings Park is an idyllic haven close to the city with a swimming pool, heated sauna, and lush gardens, and all units have sunny balconies and plenty of ventilation. The building’s main entrance is located on Wells St and the complex spans through to neighbouring Dodds St.

But for those who live on the building’s Dodds St side, residents need to walk through unventilated passages, less than a metre wide, which lead to staircases, also without opening windows, in order to access their apartments.

“We had a false sense of security,” Kate Sadler, a resident of the fourth floor, told Southbank News. She said residents hadn’t been wearing masks because they thought they were in open areas.

“The thing is about the stairwell,” she said. “When you’re in a high-rise you get in a lift. In our situation we have stairwells. We don’t think of these as being enclosed but they are.”

She said that before the lockdown “our neighbours were going up and down the stairwell without masks. Now we put them on.”

Two men who lived in separate apartments adjacent to the positive cases contracted the disease somewhere in these communal areas.

“To my knowledge all of the apartments opened into that stairwell,” Ms Sadler said. “If residents had been wearing masks it wouldn’t have happened.”

Kings Park is not the only Southbank community built in this style. Around half-a-dozen were built in the ‘90s as part of Southbank Village by the same developer Central Equity, including Coventry Gardens and Sutherland Place.

“We will all need to be more cautionary,” Kate said. “The buildings weren’t designed with the virus in mind.”

She said it would be relatively easy to rectify the problem by creating an air space or vents in the stairwell.

“Normally it’s not a problem. It would be an overreaction to do that. We’d have to wear the cost.”

She said Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) were advising residents to stick to their own passages and to access the garage from the street.

Gregor Evans, president of Strata Community Association (Vic) – the peak body for owners’ corporations in Victoria, said the Southbank cluster had highlighted the increased urgency in which the government needed to better consult strata communities in emergency preparedness.

“Strata managers can play a part in mitigating the risks posed by COVID-19 in these settings by engaging and increasing the frequency of education with owners and occupiers, based on receiving timely and accurate advice from government. Ultimately, government has a duty to engage with industry and strata managers to react and respond to the unique needs of strata complexes and make this a reality,” he said.

“The Victorian Government should see to it that strata is given the unity of purpose in regulatory terms that it needs, especially in terms of preventing and responding to emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic”

“On many occasions, private building operators were effectively left to their own devices to respond to public health directives in a crisis without a requisite level of support or attention from government.”•

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