Doctor who claimed she could hardly walk passed RAF combat fitness tests

Newcastle Crown Court
Newcastle Crown Court

A hospital doctor passed an RAF fitness test while claiming government benefits for being barely able to walk.

Sandra Turnbull was paid more than £22,000 in disability living allowance on the basis she could barely walk without being struck down by severe pain.

Newcastle Crown Court heard, in reality, the 44-year-old medic was working 12-hour shifts as a doctor, had enrolled in the Territorial Army and was volunteering for intensive training with the RAF.

Her ex-husband told investigators she had enjoyed scuba diving, a walking holiday exploring Rome and was a keen cyclist during the period of her claim.

The respected mum, who has been suspended by the General Medical Council as a result of her conviction for benefit fraud, was initially given the state handouts, which are intended to help those who are really sick, in cash, but later opted to receive her payments in the form of car.

Turnbull, of Caversham Road, Chapel House, Newcastle, pleaded guilty to three charges of making dishonest representations to obtain benefit.

Mr Recorder Richard Wright QC sentenced her to a community order for 12 months with supervision.

He told her: "You said you were unable to walk at all, for any time or distance, whereas in fact you were flying about in helicopters with the RAF, passed as being fit for combat duty and involved in the Territorial Army.

"The fact must be, you knew you simply were not in the discomfort and pain you were representing to the department on a continuing basis.

"You committed offences of dishonesty and stole money that should have been being spent on people who really needed it."

The judge said he accepted the medic did have a painful hip condition, which led to her having a full replacement, but was not in the bad condition she claimed to be.

He said despite her dishonesty, Turnbull was an intelligent woman with an impressive professional background of helping others.

He added: "I hope you are judged by other tribunals who have to judge you on these things, not just on this event, which, I am sure, will be an isolated blip in an otherwise good life."

Prosecutor Vince Ward told the court Turnbull claimed for disability living allowance in June 2003 and was awarded the "higher" rate of payment due a severe hip condition.

Mr Ward said: "She claimed she could walk zero meters without experiencing severe discomfort and could walk zero minutes before experiencing zero discomfort."

The court heard Turnbull completed renewal forms without declaring her condition had improved to the extent it allowed her to compete in gruelling physical challenges.

Mr Ward told the court Turnbull enrolled in the army reserve unit Northern Field Hospital in 2006 and volunteered for a training placement with the RAF in that year.

The court heard in her RAF application for training she declared she understood the need to engage in safety proceedures, including escape from a helicopter that ditched and said she was physically capable.

During the training she was winched from a helicopter as part of the intensive physical assessment.

Mr Ward added: "The RAF categorised her as fully employable for combat duty."

The court heard as part of her duties with the Territorial Army, Turnbull took part in a field training exercise in 2007 which took place in Northumberland.

Turnbull failed the tough physical assessment, but Mr Ward told the court: "It involved a six-mile march, to be completed in two hours, carrying a rifle and rucksack weighing 15kg."

During the period of her claim for disability payments, Turnbull was employed at the James Cook University Hospital, Newcastle General Hospital and the County Durham and Darlington Trust.

Mr Ward said: "She worked 40 hours per week, 12-hour shifts, standing for long periods at a time, and she would have had to walk considerable distances within the hospital."

The court heard during her employment Turnbull did have some times off due to sickness, including back pain.

An occupational therapy assessment in 2014 concluded she should work eight hours per day with suitable rest.

Turnbull admitted claiming £22,279.95 dishonestly.

Richard Herrmann, defending, said Turnbull does have a significant problem with her hip which led to a replacement operation last year.

Mr Herrmann added: "Effectively, by this course of conduct, this defendant is going to lose everything she has worked for for 15 years.

"She is suspended, she is to be put before the General Medical Council, and one can fairly readily anticipate the outcome from a conviction like this. "