Covid-19 crisis: Move to turn hotels into hospitals raises temperature

Topics Coronavirus | hotels | hospitals

A banquet hall used for weddings has been temporarily converted into a makeshift quarantine facility for Covid-19 patients in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters
Well-intentioned moves don’t always mean good business, and hoteliers have been forced to learn this the hard way. The Delhi government’s recent order to attach hotels to serve as extensions of hospitals to provide for the shortfall of beds and medical facilities for Covid-19 patients has baffled many hoteliers, who say though the move is for a good cause, it will be a blow to the sector already reeling from the impact of the pandemic. 

On Tuesday, the Delhi government sent a notice to hotels under the Disaster Management Act, saying they were to be attached in toto to hospitals and to stand-by for receiving patients for both quarantine as well as those with more benign symptoms of the virus. So far, Taj Mansingh in New Delhi is the most iconic and high-profile hotel to receive the notice, attaching it to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. Others include ITC-operated Hotel Sheraton in Saket (Max Smart), Hotel Crowne Plaza (Batra Hospital), Hotel Surya (Indraprastha Apollo), Hotel Siddarth (BL Kapur Hospital), and Hotel Jivitesh (Sir Ganga Ram). 

The Hyatt hotel chain has also received attachment notices for multiple locations in New Delhi, but none has been converted yet.

Altogether, around 40 hotels in the National Capital Region have received such notices.

Dipak Haksar, former CEO of ITC Hotels and advisor to the CII's national committee on tourism, said, “We had sent a detailed note to the government after guidelines were issued by the home ministry, stating that the Delhi government needed to allow the opening of hotels in some manner for the revival of this sector. But keeping hotels attached and totally out of action will mean a full closure of activity.” 

A top executive recently expressed displeasure about the Delhi government’s plans to attach one of its hotels to a hospital as “they were not designed to be a hospital”. He noted that many other states had contacted them to extend institutional quarantine facilities as part of the Vande Bharat Mission, but not for use as a hospital.   The tourism and hospitality sector and related businesses are expected to see losses of about Rs 5 trillion, besides job cuts of about 20 million, owing to the Covid impact, according to officials with CII. A spokesperson for Accor Hotels declined to comment. Marriott International didn’t respond as of press time. The Oberoi group also declined to comment.

A spokesperson for IHCL said they were working with the medical community to support its fight against the pandemic, from hosting its personnel at hotels to providing millions of meals. “We collaborated with the government across the country to offer hotels as quarantine facilities. With regard to the notification on Taj Mahal  Delhi, the hotel is undergoing major renovation, begun before the lockdown, which makes it unviable to host patients and doctors. IHCL remains committed to supporting the medical fraternity as well as government bodies to fight the pandemic, and will continue to cooperate during these challenging times,” the spokesperson said.

Haksar said the court's verdict on Surya Hotel allowed for its usage by asymptomatic and early-stage patients, but there were ambiguities.

A price cap of Rs 5,000 has been set for five-star hotels. This includes food and goods and services tax, which is unviable for hotels, he said. For three- and four-star hotels it's not to be greater than Rs 4,000. There is no clarity on GST and bills for the rooms to be used. They will be paid directly to hospitals, which will pay them as they receive insurance, which could mean delays, he said. “Credit extension at a time when the sector is already reeling will further weaken it,” Haksar said. “There is also more clarity needed on who is going to pay for PPE, biomedical systems, and training staff?” He also questioned the rationale behind selecting the Pulman and Andaz hotels, both at least 10 km away from hospitals. 

Ajay Bakaya, managing director at Sarovar Hotels & Resorts, said hospitals collected fees on behalf of the hotels and paid them at their convenience. “We should be allowed to collect our part of the money. There is no reason why we should go running after the hospitals. While we are ready to fulfil our duty we need some pragmatic answers as to how it is going to be handled.”

Two Sarovars will be used as health care facilities — one as a testing centre, the other just got a notice to be attached to a hospital. “I don’t have an issue as it’s a pandemic and it’s the need of the hour. The issue most have raised is in regards to some practical aspects,” he said. “The hotel staff pointed out without being trained  cannot interact with the patients. Secondly, a lot of them are reluctant to work for a hospital. Therefore, the staff requirement has to be met by the hospital.”

 Hotel chains’ experience of dealing with the state governments elsewhere has been smoother. Suhail Kalmapalli, chief operating officer at Ferns Hotels & Resorts, said its hotel in Ahmedabad was serving as a Covid care centre, for those with mild symptoms. “The patients pay for themselves and we are allowed to collect the payment directly,” he said.

Potential alternatives for serving as backups for hospitals include sporting facilities and large stadiums, which would be better-suited, Haksar said, adding that it didn't take more than a week to set up a German-style Hangar facility with several thousand beds and specific ventilation and medical systems to battle the virus.

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