A GANG of travelling thieves who targeted hospitals around the country have been jailed for four years.

The four Norfolk-based men smashed their way into three hospitals in the region where they stole a number gas cylinders over the weekend when the Covid lockdown was announced in March.

The professionally planned raids were carried out at a time of 'national crisis', Teesside Crown Court heard.

Richard Bennett, prosecuting, said the gang travelled to the North East after burgling hospital sites in the North West.

The court heard how they used two vehicles, a Fiat van and a BMW, while carrying out the night time burglaries at Chester-le-Street, Bishop Auckland and Darlington where they stole a number of nitrous oxide canisters, used to deliver pain relief to patients.

Mr Bennett said the gang used stolen number plates in an attempt to cover their tracks as they made their way around the country stealing the gas cylinders.

Oliver Zak Henry Evans, 22, of Sandy Lane North, Wallington; Harry David Bradley Goodrum, 23, of Norwich Road, Dereham; Jake Alexander Roberts, 23, of Chestnut Hill, Norwich; and Wayne John Grady, 42, of Sallhouse Road, Panxworth, Norwich, all admitted a single charge of conspiracy to commit burglary.

Judge Paul Watson QC, the Recorder of Middlesbrough, branded the gang 'despicable' as he jailed them all to four years in custody.

He said: "We couldn't have known in March of the profound effects it would have on our lives but it was clear at that early stage that it would take a terrible toll on precious NHS resources.

"You four were involved in a deliberate, targeted campaign of burglary of NHS hospitals to steal precious anaesthetic gas which are essential for the management of pain across the whole spectrum of patients within a hospital setting.

"It's not to put too fine a point on it that this was despicable conduct designed to deprive those in desperate need of pain relief within the NHS."

Outlining the cases against the defendants, Mr Bennett said the men first broke in to Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport and stole two nitrous oxide canisters, used for pain relief.

They then drove to Withington Hospital in Manchester and took another eight - some containing "gas and air" often used in childbirth and others nitrous oxide - from a storage unit.

They then travelled to the North East and smashed their way into a storage unit at Chester-le-Street Community Hospital to steal more canisters in the early hours of the next day.

Similar thefts were also committed at Bishop Auckland Hospital and Darlington Memorial Hospital, where the gang took 14 canisters from the latter, and drove off with them in the back of a BMW fitted with stolen number plates.