Saturday was a day of community unity in Murupara as hundreds took part in a rally to support their local doctor, who is being investigated by the New Zealand Medical Council for public comments made about the Pfizer vaccine.
The Murupara Medical Centre is also facing reduced services due to its two longest standing GPs, Dr Bernard Conlon and his wife, Dr Britta Noske, being unvaccinated.
The rally gathered in the Murupara shopping centre on Pine Drive and headed off for a circuit of the town around 9.30am.
The hikoi was preceded through the streets by the roar of around 16 members of the Tribesmen gang on motorbikes and as many cars honking horns, while Mongrel Mob members tailed the hundreds of walkers, providing support where needed.
While several people at the front of the walkers carried anti-government banners and shouted slogans, most of those who took part walked quietly in a peaceful show of unity and support for the doctor who had treated them for the past 30 years.
For the most part, people were social distancing and many wore masks.
The hikoi paused at the medical centre on Kowhai Ave where a blessing was said and Conlon planted a white rose with the help of young Tukutoromiro Nuku. The hikoi then continued to Te Kura Kopapa Motuhake o Tawhiuau where there was entertainment and speeches.
Conlon said the turnout was heartwarming.
"As they say in Ireland, it warms my heart. It's a validation of the decision I made 30 years ago to make this my home."
When asked about a small number of extremely vocal Covid-19-deniers in the march, Conlon told Local Democracy Reporting that he took the threat of the pandemic very seriously.
"No one took the Covid-19 threat more seriously than I. I instructed my staff in March 2020 to order six months of all supplies, so we would not be caught short because I was fearful of supply lines being compromised.
"I certainly take Covid-19 seriously and hope that the Medical Council, whose final decision I am still awaiting, will allow me to continue to practice so that I can be part of the frontline response team when Covid-19 comes to Murupara."
Along with half the population of Murupara who have not yet had their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Conlon confirmed that neither himself or his wife were vaccinated.
"That is our choice, but as a consequence, we have been told that we cannot see patients face-to-face.
"Initially, we weren't even going to be allowed to see patients through Telehealth technology. That has changed, so what will happen is that we'll run a three-day service, because two of the doctors are vaccinated.
"Britta and I will try to triage as well as we can Telehealth-wise, but it is really cobbling together a very fragmented service that's been imposed upon us."
Part of the reason Conlon has so much support in Murupara is his devotion to healthcare in the area. In many families he has seen five generations of patients and is known to visit patients after hours at their homes.
"We have run an old-fashioned practice, 24/7, not only Murupara but also the outlying areas of Ruatahuna and Minginui.
"We've done our best to run a comprehensive service, regardless of the time and I think that is one of the reasons that these people are as concerned as they are.
"They just don't know what's going to happen. At the moment, with this present legislation, our normal services will finish on Monday."
He said he sympathised with the district health boards having to operate under the Government mandate for all staff to be vaccinated.
"They are just carrying out instructions. I think they've been caught on the hop as well and they are trying to reconfigure - what are the obvious gaps and what is the best way to plug them."
The mandate provides the exception that unvaccinated staff can treat patients in an emergency.
"We are now seeking clarification as to what constitutes an emergency. We've dealt with stabbings. We've dealt with torrential blood loss from lacerated arteries, we've dealt with unplanned pregnancies delivering on our doorstep.
"There's lots of time-critical stuff, but perhaps not always fulfilling a strict criteria of emergency, which is life-threatening. We intend to follow the restrictions, but at the moment we're flying blind, so to speak."