THE practice manager of a health centre stole more than £55,000 to fund a crippling gambling addiction, a court heard.

Tracey Abbott was today (Monday, March 21) jailed for 16 months for what a judge called breach of "a position of great responsibility".

Teesside Crown Court was told the Woodside Surgery in Loftus, East Cleveland, came close to closing after the theft.

The staff and 6,500 patients were said to have been left "angry, upset, disappointed and anxious" by Abbott's dishonesty.

The mother-of-three - who has a conviction for benefit fraud from ten years ago - started working at the High Street surgery in 2014.

She was about to leave the job and move to Lancashire when the problems with the accounts emerged in August last year.

When she was confronted by one of the senior doctors, 46-year-old Abbott told him: "I've got a terrible gambling habit."

Her lawyer, Michael Flynn, said she had lost £68,000 on internet slot machine sites and "found herself in a large hole".

Mr Flynn told the court: "She explains that the funds that were taken were not taken to fund any sort of lavish lifestyle.

"She describes the hopelessness of the addiction as such: 'It's like a monster that gets hold of you - nothing else matters'."

Abbott, of Nursery Avenue, Ormskirk, admitted charges of theft and false accounting at an earlier court hearing.

Mr Flynn told the judge, Recorder Henry Prosser, that prison would have a damaging effect on Abbott's son.

He said she has taken steps to tackle her addiction, and has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety by her GP.

The judge told Abbott: "There is clearly very significant culpability because you were in a position of upmost trust.

"Patients were dependent upon you to behave honestly and not help yourself to practice funds. Its future was in jeopardy."

Doctors told how bills from suppliers went unpaid, and flu vaccines were lost because they could not afford a fridge.

Members of staff had to go into work overtime to sort out Abbott's paperwork, which was described as "a mess".