There’s a saying going around that it’s the hope that kills you – and certainly, fans of the Scotland, Sweden, France, Netherlands and German football teams at the European Championships would concur.
Of course, it’s nonsensense. If anything kills you, it’s complacency. You walk around feeling like you’re immune and then you find out the person sitting next to you in a cafe definitely wasn’t virus-free, and your attitude changes quickly.
So in this week’s podcast Sue and I chat about what it’s like to be self-quarantining (we were deemed to have been close contacts with an infected person) and ask why NSW Health doesn’t want to tell people in apartments just to take a few minor sensible extra precautions.
We also look at the tragic and terrible apartment block collapse in Miami and what that might and maybe should mean for buildings of the same age constructed in a similar fashion here in Australia.
Interestingly, a comment piece by our very good friend and strata expert Cathy Sherry appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the day after we recorded our podcast, and it pretty much confirms everything we were saying.
Meanwhile, I’ll just take a break from self-congratulation to point out an error I made in the podcast where I referred to the apartment block in Melbourne’ Southbank as Kings Court.
I should have said Kings Park. If you Google “Kings Court” you might find a very different kind of establishment … so don’t! No! I said don’t! Or at least remember to clean up your search history when you’re done.
TRANSCRIPT IN FULL
It’s very quiet today.
It really is!
It’s quieter than normal, when we do our podcast.
And that’s because we’re in Sydney.
And, we’re in the middle of lockdown-central.
Even more lockdown than most people, because we are actually in quarantine. We are in quarantine, because of close contact. We spend half our lives in cafes, and it was bound to happen, sooner or later.
An infected person was in the cafe at the same time as us, apparently.
Let’s talk about that in a minute, and we’re going to talk about this tragedy; this horrible tragedy, in Miami. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue Williams and I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
Well, while our theme music was playing, there was a very atmospheric ambulance siren in the background. Kind of appropriate, but difficult to edit. We had that heart-sink feeling, earlier last week, when we looked at the list of places where infected people had been at and discovered we had been in the same cafe at the same time.
It was a bit depressing, wasn’t it, really?
It was a bit alarming, because we didn’t really know what to do.
It was funny, because we didn’t receive a notice through our apps, because we’d signed in. I think the app was a bit faulty, or it blipped, or something and it missed it. So, it was up to us to look up where we’d been and the times; work out with our diaries, whether that was the same time as well and then voluntarily go into quarantine.
It was a bit pathetic, wasn’t it? I mean, we’re going “okay, what day was it, we had the cheese toasties? What day was it that our friend came and sat and talked to us?” Yes. That was the final clincher when she called up and said “hey, I’m in isolation and you should be, too.”
So, we went on the New South Wales Health website and it told us to immediately make our way to a testing place. We went along to the testing station; there was hardly anybody there, to begin with and then suddenly, all these people started turning up with their mobile phones, looking at messages. I suspect that they were people who had been in close contact areas, who had all just received a text message, saying “go and get yourself tested.” We didn’t hardly wait at all, actually, did we? Well, you waited ages, because you somehow were in a shift changeover thing. We got our tests (which if you haven’t had your test yet, it’s a bit like eating wasabi, what happens to your nose).
But, it’s a lot better than before, isn’t it?
Yeah, less intrusive.
Apparently, they’re using a more bendy kind of stick and it’s not quite as long. It doesn’t kind of ‘smart’ as much as it did last year.
If you don’t know what it’s like having wasabi, then you need to eat more Japanese food, as soon as the Japanese restaurants are open again. So, we did that and then we came home. Even though you had your test about 10 minutes after I had mine, you got your result about six hours before I got mine, which is a bit alarming, because no news is not necessarily good news, in these situations. I had to call New South Wales Health and leave my number, because it was a 45 minute waiting time on the phone call. I left my number, they called me back and it was weird, because this woman called me at about half-past seven at night and I’m on the exercise bike in our flat and I think she was put off by my heavy breathing.
So, she put the phone down!
She hung up on me!
And didn’t call back, so I called them again the next day and this nice young bloke (I assume; he sounded young), Kevin. He took us through everything we needed to do, which was to go back and get a second test; to isolate ourselves from our neighbors.
Which we’d already done.
Which we’d already done, yep.
But, we hadn’t realized that the isolation period of 14 days is from the day that you had that close contact. I actually thought it was going to be 14 days from the date of the test. That’s good. So, we’re free on July the 5th, if all goes well.
Which will be your book launch.
Well, actually the day before the book launch, but I think the book launch is going to be postponed, which is a shame. Sad to miss your own book launch. So yeah, he went through everything and we contacted our building management as well; our concierge. They’ve already got a protocol in place.
Which is great, I have to say, but it makes you realize how lucky we are. We’ve got a really good strata management company. We’ve got really good building managers. We’ve got an active strata committee.
And great concierge.
Yeah and between them, they’ve worked out a protocol, which is not that onerous, really. It made perfect sense why they would do it, but the only thing that kind of jarred with me was the fact that we’d run out of avocados, which in the eastern suburbs, is a disaster. They told all our neighbors on our floor…
To be aware of us.
Yeah, to stay away.
And that’s absolutely fine. You know, I get that. But, in the meantime, we kind of had to phone them up today and say “if you see us on security camera going out of the building, it’s because we’re going to get our second test.”
It was it was kind of hard, because we didn’t really have much food in, so we had to do an online order, to get food delivered, which is hopefully going to be delivered this afternoon.
You’re talking about fresh food?
Yeah, because we’re obviously not allowed to go out to shops, like most other people who are just in a gentle lockdown in Sydney. A friend in the meantime, dropped around a big bag and the concierge left it at our door and we opened it and it was full of biscuits and cheese and chips and fruit…
Most of which is gone now.
No, there’s still loads left. But I must say, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. It really cheered me up.
It made me think, if you know somebody; if you’ve got a friend who’s in isolation, rather than just general lockdown (which means they can’t go out to the shops), go and buy them a bike full of biscuits.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, a few friends emailed me and said “if there’s anything you need; any shopping, please let us know,” and that was great, really kind. But, actually to have somebody come around and drop that off, it was just miraculous. I mean, I think we were both feeling a bit down at the thought of being at home with each other so much in quarantine, but having all these Tim Tams and wafers and chocolate Teddy’s, suddenly made life so much more enjoyable.
Chocolate Teddy’s; I didn’t notice them! They’d be gone now, if I’d found them. One thing we forgot about (because we sat down and we ordered Uber Eats for dinner last night, which was great. And, we ordered food; fresh food that will arrive any minute now, which is also good)… I forgot the cat food. I had to go and count the number of cat tins and sachets and things.
Do we have enough?
Oh, thank goodness!
That will get us through to next week. Look, it may sound like we’re taking this lightly… We’re taking it seriously and making the most of it. Fortunately, Naked Wines made a delivery last week, so we’re not short of alcohol. We could probably almost survive with what we’ve got.
We’re far luckier than most, really.
Yep, but it’s great to have a system in place and I’m incredibly grateful to everybody involved in the management of our building, for making this. I mean, if I wasn’t in isolation (if we weren’t in isolation), I would be worried about what’s happening with the people who are. You know, the people who shouldn’t be going out; shouldn’t be meeting their neighbors. That brings us to the next topic, which is, what’s New South Wales Health doing about people in apartments? We’re gonna have a chat about, that after this.
And, we’re back. Sue, you wrote about this in Domain, in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. I wrote about it in the Financial Review. We’re in a very privileged situation, as we explained before. We’re being looked after and everybody else in our building is being looked after. But, where’s New South Wales Health in all this? What is their take on apartment blocks? Let me preface your response to what I read in a newspaper in Melbourne, where an epidemiologist said that apartment blocks are basically like quarantine hotels, in terms of the potential transmission, except they don’t have all the cleaning and security and keeping people apart and making sure people don’t open their doors at the same time. You, I believe, called New South Wales Health, and said “what is your message to people who live in apartments?” What was their response?
Well, they seemed a bit flabbergasted really, that I’d even asked the question and they said “there’s just no need for apartments to receive special attention;” that we’re not a special case at all and that they provide advice to everybody in exactly the same way, whether living in houses or apartments. If people are in close contact, they’ll follow that up. They may even look on CCTV video, if there is some in apartments. They’ll talk to strata managers. But really, they’re not undertaking any proactive means of making sure that apartment buildings aren’t super-spreaders, which they have the potential to be, as you said.
They’re saying “look, if you’re in an office, wear a mask; you go into a shop, wear a mask.” We know from the King’s [Park] apartment block in Melbourne, in the South Bank there; which they had to lock down after six people got infected.
That was the complex of townhouses, wasn’t it?
There were some apartments there, also. It had a common area carpark and the medical experts in Melbourne are saying that’s where the infection occurred and it was casual, cross-infection. It wasn’t people hugging and kissing in the carpark, as everybody does. It was people passing each other, that picked up the infection.
Sure and that’s the obvious danger with the Delta variant, because earlier last year, we had in Melbourne, the nine Housing Commission tower blocks, which were locked down.
Yeah, that wasn’t Delta, though.
That wasn’t Delta, but that was a really terrible situation, with so many people infected, but now with Delta, it makes it potentially even worse.
Absolutely. I mean, we had somebody on the radio the other day (this is a New South Wales health expert), saying, that if one member of the family gets infected, all members of the family will be infected. That’s how infectious it is. It’s not selective in any way at all, so we know you’ll get the potential cross-infection, just in passing. We know that the government is worried about people in offices and in lifts and there was an alert went out for anybody who was in a certain lift, at a certain time, in a certain building. Why will they not say “hey, if you live in an apartment block, and you’re moving through common area, put a mask on.”
Absolutely. It’s just being left to individual buildings. I mean, we saw this last week with the Elan building in Kings Cross, which is a really big building. I think it’s about 280-290 apartments. They were locked down, because they had a positive case there. They didn’t know who; maybe they’d been in the lift, or who had been in the car park and they’ve got also common areas there. There’s a swimming pool; they’ve got a gym.
Just walking down the corridor…
They’ve got a couple of lobby areas as well, so they faced that lockdown. I think lots of people have been tested, but I don’t think any other cases have come up, which is fortunate. They were also in the cafe next door, which is the cafe we went to and somebody who was infected was in there as well, which is why we’re in quarantine too. But yeah, the government (and the Department of Health), is offering no particular advice to apartment residents, which is a bit shameful. I talked to the Owners Corporation Network and they were saying they’ve been asking the Department of Health for a long, long time now, to issue some kind of protocols and guidance to apartment buildings, because we’ve got shared air conditioning systems, shared lifts, shared common areas, stairways, lounges, gyms, pools; all those kind of areas. But, when somebody does come down with COVID-19, in an apartment building there’s no protocols or regime, telling people what to do.
I think it’s even worse than that. Last week, or the week before, traveling into the city, we knew that they were going to reintroduce compulsory mask wearing on public transport at four o’clock that day. I traveled into the city at three o’clock and hardly anyone on the train was wearing masks. At 4.30, when I returned, hardly anyone in the train wasn’t wearing masks. You realize, it’s not just a question of people waiting to be told what to do; it’s people waiting to get a sense of how bad things are. They get that from the government. Now, we’re lucky, you know, we’ve been asked to socially distance in the lifts. Even before we went into quarantine, we masked up in the lifts, partly because I’d written a column about it and I didn’t want to be outed as a hypocrite.
If the government isn’t providing the lead on things like this, what are other people meant to do? Karen Stiles from the OCN said, quite rightly, the Elan building, with its 500-odd people, had a positive test and so potentially, there could have been hundreds of people infected. Instead of bringing in a team of people to go into the building and test everyone, maybe door-to-door, or having people in the lobby and test them there… Instead, they said to everybody “okay, go out, back into the neighborhood; get tested, and then come back and self-isolate,” which seems kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?
It is totally ridiculous and it’s almost like this thing where they’re saying “we don’t want to alarm people.” Well, sometimes you do have to alarm people. That’s what alarms are for; to alarm people.
We’ve had lots of cases of positive cases in apartment buildings and one building manager I talked to, Ben Mees, was saying he manages some of the hugest buildings in the country. He’s got World Square (World Tower), with 1500 residents. What happens there? We’ve always talked about overcrowding in some CBD apartments, so it’s probably quite hard to keep track of who all the residents are, as well. He was saying that they had a positive resident and suddenly, people were starting to get bit panicky in the building and then, there was a fire alarm. Can you imagine? What are they meant to do? They just don’t really know. I mean, he was saying the government just doesn’t understand strata living. It’s not like houses; you can’t shut your front gate and keep everyone away and everyone shares everything.
Not every building has building management or strata management. This statistic has probably changed, but when we started writing about strata, fewer than 50% of the strata schemes in New South Wales had strata managers. I’m sure the bigger ones will have them now, because they need to have them. Strata managers generally are doing a terrific job in informing their committees. You know, “this is what you should be doing” and then it’s up to the committee to decide what they want to do. There’s a trickle-down, to where you get to a building, which might have 30 apartments in it; doesn’t have a strata manager, doesn’t have a building manager and people are walking around going “should I wear a mask? Do I want to be the odd person out? Do I want to be abused in the lift by some anti masker idiot?”
And if they’re infected? I mean, should they be using the garbage rooms? They probably shouldn’t.
The whole point of these lockdowns is to keep the vast majority of people who aren’t infected, away from the tiny minority who are infected. So, you bring in sensible rules. We know that masking works. We know that casual contact (passing contact), of this new variation of the virus is highly contagious. What should we do; try and get people to mask up when they’re going to be in close proximity with other people? What is close proximity? Well, we know from Melbourne, that walking past somebody in a car park or in a lift, is close proximity. Tell people to wear masks! Come on, Gladys! We know you don’t live in an apartment.
But, lots of her ministers do. I mean, she’s got a couple of ministers who’ve been infected with Covid.
There you go. It’s just so slack and, it’s so lazy.
Even the big buildings haven’t issued any advice on whether the gym should stay open, whether the pool should stay open. The buildings are each struggling with these decisions and it’s up to strata committees and it’s really hard for them, without any advice from the government. If they decide to close the gym and the pools, residents are complaining, saying “well, you know; you’ve got no authority to do that” and they’re phoning the Department of Fair Trading. Fair Trading is saying “oh, there’s no rules on that.” So, then they’re saying “okay, we’re going to take you to NCAT.” It’s really, really hard for everyone. I mean, if the Department of Fair Trading, or, the Department of Health, said that these are the actual rules and guidelines; everyone has to abide by them, it would be so much clearer, so much easier, and so much more simple to introduce.
It’s funny, because one of the messages out of the last lockdown period was to keep yourself healthy and ironically, in a lot of big buildings, they can’t get into their gyms to keep themselves healthy, but they can go into the pub next door, as long as they stand up while they’re drinking. Has that changed now; have they closed down the pubs? No, they haven’t, because we drove past the Darlo bar.
Yep, you can still stand up.
Stand up and drink.
Oh no, you’ve got to sit down and drink; you can’t stand up.
See, there’s another form of exercise that’s been taken away from people!
And as well, in the bigger buildings, you’ve got building managers, you’ve got concierge, you’ve got cleaning staff… Are they essential workers? Are they allowed to come into work? So many of these big buildings will just absolutely shut down. If those cleaners weren’t there, then the garbage chutes would get filled up, they wouldn’t be cleaned. Nobody would clean the lift buttons. If there’s a lift breakdown (if the building manager is not at work), who’s going to fix that? These people have to be classified as essential workers as well, but there doesn’t seem to be much regard to those kind of things.
That’s another thing that came out of OCN was they know that some of the security workers in quarantine hotels are also doing shifts in apartment blocks. They know what’s going on, but they don’t know who they are and the government (again), is going “meh, it’s just an apartment block; it’s just people who live in apartments. Doesn’t really matter, does it?”
But, there are so many of us now!
Yeah, there’s a million of us. Is it a million in New South Wales? Yeah, half a million in Sydney.
That’s a lot of people.
When you look at the original shut-down areas; City of Sydney and the eastern suburbs, that’s where most of the apartment residents are. But, it’s okay…”Don’t worry; you can go and breathe on each other all you like, because if you get infected, we’ll probably get round to looking after you, eventually.”
Mask up folks, mask up. After this, we’re going to talk about something that is probably even more serious and does have implications for us here in Australia and that is the terrible tragedy of the collapsed tower in Miami. That’s after this.
And, we’re back. Well, the radio and television for the past few days, has been full of stories and images from that terrible apartment collapse in Miami. Miami Beach, is it, in Florida?
Yeah and I think they’ve still got 159 people missing.
And the one thing that struck me about this was (and all the reports I’ve heard), I’ve heard people saying it was unforeseeable or inexplicable. Then I’m listening to other reports and they’re saying “well, this building was quite old. It was suffering from what we call ‘concrete cancer.’ The metal supports inside the concrete were rusting, because it’s right next to the sea. The building had been sinking for years, because it’s built on sand. There’s been buildings going up next to it for years; constant drilling and hammering.”
Columns were cracked…
And the columns and they could see; they were already talking about remediation work. What in that picture is unforeseeable?
That’s right. I mean, they’ve got a report that was done two-and-a-half-years ago, saying that remediation work was needed urgently. I think they’d taken out a big, $12 million line of credit to get that work done, but it had been delayed. This wasted two -and-a-half-years, waiting for the work to start and that two-and-a-half-years was obviously really vital.
Absolutely. I mean, you can’t help but think of Mascot Towers, which I believe, is a similar-sized building, also built on very shaky ground. It’s built on a very high water table and was starting to sink around about the same time as there was heavy engineering work going on next door.
Which is still in court, so we don’t know…
We don’t know what the actual cause was, or whether it will ever be properly defined. But, the residents of Mascot Tower must be sitting there today, going ‘there but for fortune,’ because that’s how bad it gets. The way buildings are constructed these days, once they go down, they call it ‘pancaking.’
Right. They concertinaed.
It’s kind of like the walls pop out and the floors just come down on top of each other. Once the first couple of floors come down, then the floors underneath are completely incapable of carrying that weight. It is a kind of domino effect, as well.
I mean, those pictures were just horrific…
It reminded me so much of the Twin Towers.
Sure, but it’s interesting… That building was about 40 years old, I think. Now, the mayor of Miami has asked for an urgent report on all buildings which are 40 years old and more, in Miami. She’s urging other cities in America to do the same; to conduct an audit of all older buildings, to check that they’re still structurally in good shape.
We know from our experience here in Australia, there was a period where there were a lot of cowboy builders, just going out there and throwing buildings up. They weren’t properly inspected. They weren’t properly certified. It’s a miracle, I think, that we haven’t seen more of these buildings, or maybe, they’re just not old enough yet.
Well, when you think 40 years old; that’s the 80s. That’s not that long ago and a lot of our apartment buildings were built in the 50s and 60s. I mean, they were smaller then, but by the 80s, we started getting higher buildings. Maybe, it’s time for those buildings to be carefully looked at as well. I mean, it’s great that we’ve got a Building Commissioner looking forward, to hopefully, the buildings being built now are much better than the buildings in the past. But, we also have a duty to have a look at our older buildings as well.
But, the government’s not going to do that, are they? That’s just opening a can of worms for them. They may insist (and they should insist), that buildings over a certain age are fully inspected and that any remediation is carried out. As we know from years of writing about this stuff, the people who own apartments in these buildings, the last thing they want to do is to find major structural problems. They’d rather see a couple of cracks somewhere and immediately put their apartments on the market, before it gets too bad.
Maybe this will shock us all into taking more notice of apartments and realizing that we have a real responsibility. We all have to do building reports, don’t we?
It’s a 10 year maintenance report that has to be reviewed every five years, but there is no requirement for that to be done by a professional.
So, you think some people are just going out and do it themselves?
You know ‘Jeff’ on the strata committee can say “oh, I used to be a bricky. I know a bit about building” and walk around with a cigarette packet, making a few notes and type it up and give it to the committee. He has no liability; they have no liability and there is absolutely no confidence that the report is accurate.
Maybe that would be a really easy fix then, wouldn’t it, if they said a professional has to do that report and has to check on that report.
Every five years, you have to review.
So, if they just changed that one thing and said a professional has to check on it, then that may change the whole outlook.
And, the easiest way to do that is to look at the strata scheme registration numbers. So, we just take the first 1000 and say “okay, you’ve got to get your report done by the end of this year” and then take the next 1000.
Well, we’ve got COVID, which is really hurting the economy again. The government is spending a lot of money on infrastructure… Well, maybe, we could spend a bit of money on that kind of infrastructure as well; housing infrastructure on apartment buildings.
The reality is that it’s hard to get a tradie these days, because they’re all building houses under the last injection of funding. But look, somebody needs to sit down and say “okay, we’re taking care of the future of buildings; let’s take care of the past.” There are strategies we could employ and that would actually help the economy, because it would create work.
It’s such an horrendous thing that’s happened in Miami and your heart goes out to everyone in the families involved. You would hate to see that kind of thing, replicated here.
Okay, on that cheery note…
Oh my goodness! That was a bit depressing!
I feel the need for a biscuit. Thanks, Sue and thank you all for listening. Bye.
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