Backlash grows over aged care minister attending Ashes cricket instead of Covid inquiry

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Richard Colbeck, who is also the federal sport minister, was guest of Cricket Tasmania and Cricket Australia at the Hobart Test


Aged care advocates and unions have lambasted the minister for aged care and sport, Richard Colbeck, for attending the Ashes cricket on the same day he declined to front an inquiry about the federal government’s Covid response.

Advocacy group Aged Care Matters and the Health Services Union have accused Colbeck of failing to do his job and dodging accountability during the peak of the Omicron crisis.

Colbeck declined to attend the Senate Covid-19 committee on 14 January citing the need not to divert health department officials from their “urgent and critical” work. He then attended three days of the Hobart Test between Australia and England from Friday 14 to Sunday 16 January, it was revealed earlier this week.

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

Related: Aged care minister Richard Colbeck went to Ashes Test on same day he declined to appear at Covid committee

A spokesperson for Cricket Tasmania has confirmed Colbeck attended the match following an invitation from it and Cricket Australia – although Colbeck failed to declare the source of the “sponsored travel or hospitality” he disclosed on the register of interests.

Lloyd Williams, the national secretary of the Health Services Union, told Guardian Australia he was “absolutely staggered” Colbeck had gone to the cricket.

He labelled it part of an “ongoing pattern of poor behaviour” including not knowing how many aged care workers have been vaccinated and not knowing the number of people who have died in aged care.

“Aged workers are absolutely getting smashed, people are dying in aged care, there’s a lack of planning around the pandemic, poor surge workforce planning, and the slow rollout of boosters,” Williams said.

“And the leadership of the government is off enjoying a day at the cricket instead of being accountable for the care for older Australians – it’s a disgrace and complete abrogation of responsibility and accountability.

“Staff in the aged care sector are working multiple shifts, in crazy situations where they can’t get a day off. Many would’ve loved a day at the cricket but they couldn’t go because they were looking after elder Australians.”

Carolyn Smith, United Workers Union national aged care director, said aged care workers are “putting themselves on the line during a pandemic, the fact Colbeck couldn’t be bothered to turn up to a committee just shows his priorities and the priorities of this government”.

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Sarah Russell, the director of Aged Care Matters, accused Colbeck of having shown “complete disdain for the aged care sector”.

“How dare he not do his job? Someone being diligent would have fronted to answer questions but instead – he’s actually gone to the cricket. We need an aged care minister who cares about older Australians.”

Russell criticised the Morrison government’s handling of aged care throughout the pandemic, including a delay in calling an inquiry into early outbreaks at Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House, the lack of a national plan before a 7th edition of the plan was drafted, the slow vaccination rollout and poor infection control protocols.

According to Aged Care Matters, on 14 January there were 1,107 aged care centres with outbreaks, rising to 1,198 on 21 January.

Russell said the Omicron wave had resulted in exponential growth in infections in some aged care centres which now had hundreds of cases just weeks after having none.

Rules preventing visitors to aged care had been “devastating for the mental health of residents and their families”, she said.

“They’re not worried about dying of Omicron in many cases, residents are worried about dying of neglect. Staff have been devastated, and many are out on furlough.

“The surge workforce has been pathetic – there haven’t been enough people in the workforce.”

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, as well as 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,” the spokesperson said.

Related: ‘Covid has spread like wildfire’: 703 aged care homes across Australia battle fresh outbreaks

On Wednesday, Labor’s shadow aged care minister, Clare O’Neil, said although dialling into meetings was important, Colbeck’s actions were not “properly commensurate with how catastrophic the situation was in aged care at that time and still is”.

“At the time that Richard Colbeck was too busy going to the cricket and couldn’t appear before a Senate committee to answer questions about aged care, about 40% of aged care homes across the country were in a lockdown because of Covid,” she told ABC Radio.

“The practical impact of that is that the frailest, most vulnerable people in the country are bound to their rooms.

“This is a sector that … is operating at unsafe staffing levels as a matter of routine,” O’Neil said, “because there are just not enough people to provide basic assistance to elderly people who are in residential aged care.”

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