A doctor who dishonestly claimed benefits because she was in pain when she walked just one step took part in a six-mile Army march and was photographed being winched out of a RAF helicopter.
Sandra Turnbull received disability benefit despite the fact she was volunteering as an Army medic and being passed fit for combat duties.
A court heard that as well as trying to do a six-mile hike while carrying a 15 kilo rugsack and rifle, the 44-year-old also had a history of scuba diving and cycling.
But despite her physical feats, Turnbull, who did have a genuine problem with her hip, claimed Disability Living Allowance for more than a decade, which she was paid in cash or towards a motability car.
Now the doctor, who admitted three benefit fraud charges with an overpayment of £22,279, has been given a community order at Newcastle Crown Court.
Sentencing her, Recorder Richard Wright QC said: “The reality is, you have said you were unable to walk for any time or distance, whereas you were flying about in helicopters with the RAF, passed for being fit for combat duties and in the Territorial Army. These are not offences of oversight or mistake, but plain old-fashioned dishonesty. You are an educated and intelligent woman who has got secure and well-paid employment.”
Recorder Wright accepted Turnbull’s pain levels from her hip fluctuated, that she was a carer and was of good character, but he told her: “You stole money that should have been spent on people who really needed it.”
He added: “If everything I have read about you is right, you have been and continue to be an excellent doctor, an excellent carer and someone who has discharged their responsibilities in their professional life to the highest standard and is very well-regarded. I hope you are judged by other tribunals on those things and not just on this event, which I am sure will be an isolated blip in an otherwise good life dedicated to helping other people.”
The court heard the doctor, who had a hip replacement last year, joined an Army Reserve unit, the 201 Northern Field Hospital, in June 2006, despite claiming DLA. She had claimed to be unable to walk without experiencing severe discomfort and continued making the declarations in renewal forms in 2008, 2010 and 2013.
Following her enrolment with the field hospital, she went on a three-day placement with the RAF and was taken aboard a Sea King helicopter as a “trainee casualty” which involved being winched on and off, prosecutor Vince Ward told the court. She was assessed to be employable in full combat duties in any area of the world, the court was told.
In January 2007 Turnbull went on a full day’s training exercise in the wilds of the Coquet Valley in Northumberland, to prepare for a combat test the following weekend involving a two-hour six-mile march with rifle and 15kg rucksack, which she failed.
Mr Ward said she was a qualified doctor who had worked at Newcastle General Hospital, for County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust and at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.
She worked 40 hours a week on 12-hour shifts, standing for long periods and walking “considerable distances” around the hospitals, he said.
Department for Work and Pensions investigators carried out surveillance and she was observed walking at a normal pace, and did not appear to be in pain.
Her ex-husband provided a statement saying she was active and “unimpeded by symptoms”, Mr Ward said. The ex-partner, who was with her from 2005 to 2013, described a holiday where she went scuba diving, how they explored Rome on foot and went cycling as a family.
Richard Herrmann, defending, said Turnbull had suffered “significant health problems” due to her hip. But he said she had not disclosed the “full picture” to the DWP.
He 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 will be put before the General Medical Council and one can fairly readily anticipate the outcome from a conviction like this, although it is not certain.”