National | Novel Coronavirus / COVID-19

Anti-vax Dr reinstated in Murupara

Diane McCarthy, Local Democracy Reporter

Murupara GP Dr Bernard Conlon is practising again after being suspended by the Medical Council of New Zealand for the past four months.

Dr Conlon has been offering GP services to the remote Murupara, Minginui and Ruatahuna communities for more than 30 years, including a 24/7 on-call service that most New Zealanders would associate with days gone by.

He was suspended from practising medicine in early February while the council investigated his conduct.

The Medical Council has now renewed his licence to practise and the public register shows that he can do so without restrictions from 20 May until 31 August this year. Neither Dr Conlon nor the Medical Council has been forthcoming to Local Democracy Reporting as to how this arrangement has come about.

In a communication through the Murupara Community Board's newsletter, Dr Conlon said he had been able to achieve "a negotiated settlement" with the council.

"The community unfortunately has suffered a marked reduction in service delivery over the past six months. We look forward to addressing the backlog of issues over the next few months," the newsletter stated.

Whakatāne district councillor for the Murupara ward Alison Silcock said the Murupara community was overjoyed at Dr Conlon's return.

"We really were jumping for joy and that would have been just about everyone, even those who weren't totally happy with his options. We are very pleased that he is able to practise again," Silcock said.

The investigation came about after complaints were made to the council about questions he asked in public around informed consent for children and pregnant women to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

He has also been accused of promoting anti-vaccination views on the Murupara Medical Centre's Facebook page, referring to the Pfizer vaccine as a "gene therapy injection".

A junior doctor he was supervising wrote to former Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins describing Dr Conlon celebrating the fact that Murupara had the lowest immunisation rates in the country.

At the time he was suspended, he had been restricted to carrying out consultations via Telehealth due to not being immunised against Covid-19.

Because of his recent recovery from Covid-19, he has received a three-month exemption from the Covid-19 order and is able to practise. His wife, Dr Britta Noske, who was also restricted from seeing patients through Telehealth, is reportedly also able to see patients in person.

As of 30 May, service at the Murupara Medical Centre has reopened five days a week along with full on-call services, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ruatahuna and Minginui will receive monthly Saturday visits from Dr Conlon, in addition to their weekly telehealth service.

Investigation into Conlon continuing

Medical Council chairman Dr Curtis Walker said in a written statement that the council steps in as early as possible when a notification is made, or information comes to light, to put in place any necessary arrangements if it considers that the doctor poses a risk of harm to the public, or if an interim measure is appropriate pending an investigation.

"All investigations are carried out by a professional conduct committee and this is a separate independent body to the Medical Council. It is the committee, which determines whether or not charges will be laid with the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

"The tribunal hears and determines disciplinary proceedings brought against health practitioners, including deciding what sanctions should be put in place. There are a number of statutory processes and complexities which can affect the length of time when matters can become public.

"We can confirm that a professional conduct committee is undertaking an investigation into Dr Conlon's conduct. We are unable to release further information on matters until all investigation and decision-making processes have concluded."

Dr Conlon is also awaiting a ruling from a case he filed in the Rotorua District Court over Medsafe's seizure of a shipment of ivermectin he had ordered from overseas.

Pem Bird, principal of Murupara Māori immersion school Te Kura Kaupapa Motuhake o Tawhiuau, has been one of most vocal supporters of Dr Conlon who he describes as "a trusted, loyal friend".

"He would be hard to beat in his service to our area. He has given us 30 years of faithful, dedicated service. We regard him as one of us.

"We have great respect for his capability as a doctor, for his longstanding devotion to meeting our needs as part of this community. He attends events at this kura and the marae and is learning whaikorero on the marae, along with waiata and haka.

"He'll come calling on patients after work, in his own time."

He said his wife had health problems and she was just one example of patients who received this service

He said Dr Conlon's suspension had left the community bereft of medical care.

"We had no doctors at one stage there. Just a couple of nurses. The expectation that we would get by without health care, without a doctor … I think there's something gravely amiss with the Medical Council.

"I mean, we were still going to have sick people, we were still going to have gravely ill, terminal people, and depriving us of Dr Conlon and his team, that was a harsh blow, and I would say, over the top. We've come through a very tough time. So, we're grateful for having services restored though it's for a finite time."

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