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Aged care minister Richard Colbeck went to Ashes Test on same day he declined to appear at Covid committee | Australia news

The aged care and sport minister, Richard Colbeck, attended the Ashes cricket on the same day he declined to appear at the Covid-19 committee citing officials’ “urgent and critical” work combating Omicron.

In an update to his register of interests, Colbeck declared that he received “sponsored travel or hospitality” to attend three days of the Hobart Test between Australia and England from Friday 14 to Sunday 16 January.

Labor and independent senator Rex Patrick have blasted Colbeck for attending the cricket instead of the Senate Covid committee, which had asked him to a hearing on 14 January.

A spokesperson for Colbeck said the suggestion he had “put his sporting commitments ahead of the health and wellbeing of senior Australians … [is] completely misguided” because he had performed other Covid-related duties on that day and the Test was a day-nighter.

Colbeck was asked to appear alongside officials from the health department, but he and the prime minister’s department, which was to appear later in the day, rejected the proposed date, citing urgent Covid work.

In a letter dated 7 January, the committee’s chair, Katy Gallagher, noted the “fast-evolving Covid-19 Omicron situation” and requested Colbeck attend to “facilitate the Senate’s scrutiny role” of the government’s response.

Two days later, Colbeck replied that although he and the department “recognise the importance of accountability to the Senate” he was “concerned about the impact of the timing of this hearing”.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is at a critical point with the onset of numerous Omicron outbreaks,” he said.

“Diverting time and resources, including that of senior leaders within the department who are playing a key role in the management of the current Omicron outbreaks, to give evidence before the committee at this crucial time would impact the urgent and critical work the department is undertaking with other government agencies, states and territories to manage these outbreaks.”

Colbeck offered an interim one-hour private videoconference briefing from the health department, which Gallagher rejected as an unsuitable alternative to a public hearing.

The committee had asked for just two hours and 45 minutes of hearing time from Colbeck and the department. Gallagher’s letter acknowledged the invitation was at “short notice” because the outbreak occurred over the Christmas New Year period.

Gallagher said “Australians have done their job throughout this pandemic and they expect Scott Morrison’s ministers to do their job”.

“It is completely unacceptable that a minister in this government, who is overseeing another crisis in aged care where people are dying, chose to go to the cricket for three days of sponsored hospitality instead of fronting up to do his job,” she told Guardian Australia.

Patrick told Guardian Australia that “a minister’s first responsibility is to parliament” and Colbeck “owes a duty to the public to turn up and answer questions” at the inquiry into the pandemic response.

He said the committee wished to examine the Omicron variant, availability of rapid antigen tests, back to school plans, and how to “protect the elderly and vulnerable” in aged care.

“These are important issues – far more important than the cricket,” Patrick said.

“As much as I root for the Australian cricket team, I have a job to do and I would always put that before attending a game.”

Blundstone Arena on day one of the Hobart Ashes Test between Australia and England.
Blundstone Arena on day one of the Hobart Ashes Test between Australia and England. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Colbeck’s spokesperson said on 14 January the minister had helped deal with the Omicron outbreak by meeting the head of the Covid vaccine rollout Lt Gen John Frewen, the aged care quality and safety commissioner, the acting secretary of health and the deputy chief medical officer.

The spokesperson said Colbeck’s attendance at the test was “part of his commitments as minister for sport and Senator for Tasmania” and the Test “ was a “day/night match [that] did not start until late afternoon”.

“At a time when the Australian government continues to work to protect the lives of senior Australians in care, attempts by the Senate select committee on Covid-19 to redirect resources away from the department of health for political purposes is of serious concern and should be noted by Australians as we navigate the impact of the pandemic.”

Gallagher has previously criticised the Morrison government’s transparency with the bipartisan Senate committee, accusing it of obstructing access to information with public immunity claims.

The prime minister’s department also requested the proposed 14 January hearing be deferred, with deputy secretary Stephanie Foster warning it could “divert attention and resources of senior staff” managing the outbreak.

The committee then scheduled hearings on 21 January for the health department and 25 January for Colbeck, the latter at his request.

On 19 January the acting health department secretary, Penny Shakespeare, objected to the “diversion of resources” of staff who were “essential to a rapid, effective response” in attending the two proposed hearings. Those hearings were cancelled for unrelated reasons.

According to his register of interests, Colbeck also received sponsored travel or hospitality to attend the Adelaide Test on 16 December.

Colbeck’s presence in the media since Christmas has been limited to issuing a statement that warned about the risk of drowning and one interview on Radio National on 6 January about the Novak Djokovic visa cancellation saga.

He has previously come under fire for not knowing how many aged care workers have been vaccinated and not knowing the number of people who have died in aged care.

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