Delhi Government’s Move to Convert Hotels into Covid-19 Hospitals Would Snuff Out the Hospitality Sector’s Hope of Bouncing Back

June 19 , 2020 | Navin Berry and Sourish Bhattacharyya | The Big Picture

Reeling Under the Pandemic, Delhi Hotels Need Life Support Not a Death Sentence. It is also a very Negative Perception to send out to the World at Large that India’s Capital City is unsafe to travel to, especially when we are hoping that Unlock 2.0 could also open international airspace, even though in a calibrated manner. It is important that with central intervention, public stadia and exhibition spaces be the first option. And hopefully no more would be required!

THE HOSPITALITY sector had barely reconciled itself to being left out entirely from the government’s much-anticipated Rs 20 lakh-crore economic stimulus package. It is now struggling to come to terms with the half-hearted openings allowed under Un-Lockdown 1.0, when the Delhi Government, stung by criticism directed at it by the Supreme Court, started attaching starred hotels to their nearest hospitals with the express purpose of making them double-up as Covid-19 treatment centres.

The Delhi Government’s move is the third big body blow in a month to a sector that is reeling as a result of the freeze on travel and tourism, and the curtailment of social activities, because of the pandemic.

As Gurbaxish Kohli, Vice-President, Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), argues, if the Delhi Government was so keen on providing “five-star healthcare” to Covid-19 patients, why did it not start with three public-sector hotels in the Capital – The Ashok, which has an abundance of space; neighbouring Samrat; and the Air-India’s Centaur Hotel?

“Charity begins from home,” said Kohli, pointing out that Vigyan Bhawan, too, could comfortably accommodate hundreds of Covid-19 patients. “Hotels cannot be converted overnight into hospitals because we are not in the business of providing healthcare,” Kohli said. The FHRAI has taken up the matter with the PMO, Home Ministry and the Lt-Governor of Delhi.

“The Delhi Government is being unfair to hotel owners, who are anyway in a dire situation,” said Kul Bhushan Kachru, Chairman Emeritus and Principal Advisor (South Asia), Radisson Hotel Group. “It is not feasible or practical for hotels to become hospitals.”

Aerocity has lot of open land that is ideal for conversion

A source in the industry recalled that when Delhi Aerocity hoteliers urged the local government to consider using the 7.7-acre land parcel adjacent to the hotels, for housing the Covid-19 patients, the suggestion was ignored. Last October, an air-conditioned 65,000 sq.m. tent city had come upon this vacant plot to house the Indian Mobile Congress 2019, which was attended by more than 300 exhibitors, 5,000 delegates and 75,000-plus visitors. “Why couldn’t a Covid-19 treatment centre be planned at this spot?” asked the source. And there are German hangars acquired during the Commonwealth Games 2010; presently there is no use of them – these could easily be deployed to set up makeshift hospitals at such vacant spots. The Delhi Government could then ask hotels to do what they are best equipped to do – manage the catering services.

London city converted its famed exhibition centre into a COVID facility, creating 4000 beds. We have some 40,000 sqm of newly built exhibition space at Pragati Maidan. It is virtually ready to use, and it cant be of any use for some time, given constraints in this business. Again, it would be wiser to get hotels to provide catering services for such a facility. And there is no proof needed of their commitment to rally behind national causes. As an industry, across hotels and restaurants, they have contributed immensely to fighting the COVID in the last few months.

It was panic that drove the Delhi Government to drag the hospitality sector into its battle against Covid-19. A giveaway sign was the selection of the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road, which has been attached to Ganga Ram Hospital. The hotel, which has been under renovation, has been stripped down to a shell in several floors and the constant clatter of construction can make it hellish for Covid-19 patients. However, still, the Delhi Government has gone ahead and declared it as a treatment centre.

The British government converted Excel Exhibition Centre into a Covid Care Centre to be run under NHS. It took a week to have 500 beds in operation with provision for another 3500 beds.

Subhash Goyal, a travel and tourism industry veteran, and Honorary General Secretary, Federation of Association in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH), said the Delhi Government was reacting to a “media-created panic.” The government hadn’t considered checking out all possible alternative spaces, from stadiums to gurudwaras – eight of them, he said, had offered 850 beds to the Delhi Government – before targeting hotels. It must also first figure out where it would find doctors and nurses to care for the Covid-19 patients admitted to the designated hotels, Goyal pointed out.

Ideally, just don’t look at hotels as substitutes; it’s the wrong mix!

Two of the affected hotels – The Suryaa at New Friends Colony and the Crowne Plaza, Okhla, which now stand attached to the Apollo and Batra hospitals, respectively – had appealed to the Delhi High Court. But the Bench went along with the findings of a two-member committee, comprising Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and Dr Vinod Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, who said the banquet halls of the two hotels could easily be converted into treatment centres for asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms, while the remaining sections of the hotels would stay untouched. Last media reports confirmed that the Delhi government has confined the use of the hotels only to mild cases and that no ICU units are planned within hotels.

“Hotels cannot be converted overnight into hospitals because we are not in the business of providing healthcare”,
says Kohli, President, FHRAI

A senior executive, well conversant with how hospitals work, dismisses the Guleria-Kaul report saying they should have first read the CPWD guidelines, which run into 52 pages, for hospital operations. Hotel elevators are not big enough to transport stretchers; nor are their corridors wide enough to support the minimum requirement of being able to transport two stretchers side by side. Hotel banquet halls are not exposed to natural sunlight, a basic need for hospital rooms; they have carpeting, which is a no-no in hospitals because they are receptacles for all kinds of vile microbes. Hotel laundries cannot segregate clothes and linen from the isolation ward. And most importantly, hotels are just not equipped to handle biomedical waste – and must not be exposed to it.

You don’t have to be a regular visitor to hotels to know that they provide a safe and democratic employment avenue to young people, especially women, and also those from the north-east. The hospitality sector, in fact, was the first, followed by the retail sector, to employ young people from the north-east in substantial numbers and wean them away from the militancy that was endemic in the region till the late 1980s.

If the capital city’s leading hotels – and the list keeps growing daily, the Aerocity’s Pullman, Andaz and Pride Plaza hotels being the latest additions – are turned into Covid-19 treatment centres, a step not taken even in the worst-affected cities of the world, how will they ever get guests when the Age of the ‘New Normal’ finally arrives? And we hope it is soon, and sooner the better to start the wheels of this most vital economic activity.

A few days training cannot make hospitality staff medical personnel!

More importantly, as FHRAI’s Kohli underlined, “Why does the government want to expose hospitality sector workers, who are not trained to handle health emergencies, and their families and neighbours to the virus because of 24-hour contact with patients? Already, we have a human resource crisis on our hands because most of our skilled workers have gone back to their home town. If we tell them that they would have to come back to care for Covid-19 patients, they will refuse ever to return.”

“we can assist in other ways like we have been doing from the day the pandemic struck India – provide wholesome meals to affected people and accommodation to frontline workers,”
Mandeep Lamba, President,
HVS Anarock India.

It takes a nurse three years to qualify for the profession, but Guleria and Kaul expect hotel workers to become as proficient as one with just three days of training! As a source pointed out, CPWD guidelines on hospital management devote two pages to handling thermometers – how can a hospitality worker master such life-critical information in just three days?

There is also the challenge of people’s perceptions. Ask mall operators today, and they’ll tell you that although they have opened, and they follow the best international sanitary protocols, they are barely getting footfalls because people, fearful of getting infected, are wary of stepping into public places. At a time when fear rules over rationality, how can a hotel that doubles as a Covid-19 centre hope to get regular guests staying in it? And with experts predicting that the peak is yet to come, these hotels have no option but to write off this financial year – after a disheartening Q4 of 2019-20, it would effectively mean writing off five quarters.

The issue at the core of the problem, to quote Mandeep Lamba, President (HVA Anaraock), is that “there should be more transparency in the dealings of the government”. Hotels are not equipped to handle medical emergencies, Lamba said, “but we can assist in other ways like we have been doing from the day the pandemic struck India – provide wholesome meals to affected people and accommodation to frontline workers.” Converting hotels into hospitals won’t serve the industry well. It will only write off a sector that is gasping for ventilator support.

Is it time for the central government to move in? The public stadia, the Pragati Maidan complex, extensive lawns at The Ashok are centrally administered properties and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the city government. Is it time for the hotel industry to petition the Union Home Minister who has been seen more active on this front in the last week? We can only hope that the orders can be revisited and better common sense can prevail, allowing hotels to run as hotels, without carrying the stigma of being COVID hospitals!