Four men have been jailed after raiding hospitals and stealing pain-relieving gas - a crime that a judge described as 'despicable'.
The men from Wallingham, Dereham and Norwich were sentenced today to four years in prison each after being found guilty of stealing from the hospitals in Stockport, Manchester and County Durham at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The spree happened over the weekend of March 21-23 - the daybefore the national lockdown was imposed.
Judge Paul Watson QC at Teeside Crown Court told them: "At this time, given the situation the health service is in, the effects could have been catastrophic."
He said the Entonox and nitrous oxide cylinders were essential for painmanagement across the "whole spectrum" of the health service, and called theburglaries "despicable conduct".He added: "We know that in March of this year the country was in theearly stages of being in the grip of a terrible pandemic, the spectre of whichis still hanging over the nation now."
He said it was clear even at that early stage that the pandemic "would take aterrible toll on precious national health resources".
The judge said the raids posed a "significant risk of harm to those receivingpain management treatment".
Oliver Zak Henry Evans, 22, of Sandy Lane North in Wallington; Harry DavidBradley Goodrum, 23, of Norwich Road in Dereham; Jake Alexander Roberts, 23, ofChestnut Hill in Norwich; and Wayne John Grady, 42, of no fixed address, admitteda single charge of conspiracy to commit burglary earlier this year.
The gang first broke into Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport and stole twonitrous oxide canisters, used for pain relief.
They then drove to Willington Hospital in Manchester and took another eight -some containing Entonox, or "gas and air", which is often used in childbirth,and others nitrous oxide - from a storage unit after cutting through padlocks.
The gang travelled to the North East and smashed their way into a storage unitat Chester-le-Street Community Hospital to steal more canisters in the earlyhours of the next day.
They committed similar attacks on hospitals in Bishop Auckland and Darlington,taking 14 canisters from the latter, and driving off with them in the back of aBMW fitted with stolen number plates.
Police in Lincolnshire stopped a van the gang were using at a service stationand found 29 gas canisters in the back.
Two men were arrested in the van and two others in the BMW were stopped bypolice in North Yorkshire.