Linda Reynolds extends sick leave amid ongoing controversy over Brittany Higgins

Defence minister Linda Reynolds has extended her sick leave and is not expected to return to work this week.

Reynolds took a period of medical leave on 24 February, amid sustained pressure over her handling of the alleged rape of her former staffer, Brittany Higgins, in the minister’s office.

The minister said she was taking the leave on the advice of her cardiologist, and was hospitalised as a precautionary measure. The medical leave related to a pre-existing medical condition, she said.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Sunday that Reynolds would not return to work on Monday as initially planned. The report cited unnamed sources who said her medication has recently changed and more time was needed to judge its efficacy.

The defence minister’s office has confirmed to the Guardian that Reynolds was continuing to take sick leave.

“Defence minister Linda Reynolds continues to take sick leave which is being regularly assessed in consultation with her cardiologist,” a spokeswoman said. “The prime minister is being kept updated.”

Last week, it was revealed that Reynolds had called Higgins a “lying cow” in front of staff after the former staffer went public about her alleged rape and the minister’s handling of the matter.

That prompted Higgins to engage defamation lawyers, who wrote to the defence minister.

“We are instructed to demand that you issue an immediate and unequivocal public withdrawal of your comments and apology to our client for the hurt and distress caused,” the letter read.

Reynolds soon apologised in a statement, saying discussions were under way “through our legal representatives” to resolve the matter as soon as possible with “any resolution to include an apology”.

“In the meantime, I want to express how deeply sorry I am for these remarks and for any hurt and distress they have caused,” Reynolds said.

Higgins told the Guardian that the comments were “incredibly hurtful” and “never excusable”.

Prime minister Scott Morrison defended his minister after the comments were made public. He said the remark was made in the heat of the moment, in a private setting.

“It’s been a very traumatic several weeks for many people,” he said. “People directly involved by these events who are our primary concern. But equally, there have been others who have been drawn into this.

“They’re human beings. They say things that sometimes they deeply regret. I’m sure that all of you have found yourself, at a time of frustration, perhaps saying things you regret.”

But Higgins said the remark was “further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that exists behind closed doors in Parliament House”.

“I appreciate that it has been a stressful time but that sort of behaviour and language is never excusable,” she said.

Higgins has been interviewed by police after reactivating her police complaint about the alleged rape.

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