This luxury Harrogate hotel is providing accommodation for NHS staff and the army

The White Hart Hotel in HarrogateThe White Hart Hotel in Harrogate
The White Hart Hotel in Harrogate | jpimedia
A historic Harrogate coaching inn has been requisitioned as emergency key worker accommodation ahead of a makeshift coronavirus hospital opening in the town.

The White Hart Hotel is only a short walk from Harrogate Convention Centre, where an NHS Nightingale treatment centre for the Yorkshire and Humber region is currently being set up in the international conference venue.

The 60-room four-star hotel is now being used to house NHS staff and military personnel. They include doctors and nurses based at Harrogate District Hospital who have opted to self-isolate away from their family homes in order to remain on front-line duties, and soldiers who are using their expertise in logistics and rapid mobilisation to assist with the preparation of the makeshift Nightingale hospital.

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The hotel's owners have also been warned to prepare for an influx of further health workers who will be transferred from hospitals across Yorkshire to staff the Nightingale wards.

Simon Cotton, managing director of the HRH Group, which owns the White Hart as well as seven other hotels and pubs in Harrogate and York, approached the NHS several weeks ago to offer the building when it became clear a lockdown was likely to be imposed.

It's not the first time in the White Hart's long history - it dates back to the 18th century - that it has been requisitioned, and by coincidence, it has been in NHS ownership in the past. During World War Two, it was commandeered by both the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Works for government use.

After the end of the war, there were even plans to buy the building and turn it into a hospital, but these were abandoned and it instead functioned as the NHS's only conference centre until 1988.

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"I've been watching events and I could see it coming - it was inevitable that we'd follow Europe. I contacted the local NHS trust to offer our support and they asked me if we were doing it for commercial reasons. I clarified that my first aim was to protect jobs by remaining open for as long as possible - we have 250 staff and this was just before the government announced the furlough scheme," said Mr Cotton.

"We have a lot of employees on low wages or zero-hour contracts and closure would have been devastating for them. I thought if we can help the NHS it will be a win-win.

"The government are covering expenses but we're doing this on a not-for-profit basis - we're charging nowhere near our normal pricing and we're barely covering the overheads and energy bills. We've been able to keep a few staff on and the rest have been furloughed."

The White Hart's bar and restaurant are closed but two chefs are keeping the kitchen operational and offering room service for the guests, who must self-isolate when not at work and cannot mix in public areas of the hotel.

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"We wanted to support the fight because we are all in this together - we are a local independent business and we wanted to stay open. We've reduced things like housekeeping, and the guests have been brilliant and happy for their rooms to only be cleaned every three days instead of daily.

"We're now on standby waiting for the new hospital to open. It will be ready within days but nobody knows for sure whether it will be needed or whether it will ever be fully operational. It could open in phases with staff drafted in each time.

"The atmosphere here is very different - we're very much a leisure business, but in the daytime there's hardly anyone here now. They mostly leave for work before 7am. All the guests have been jolly and upbeat, and polite to our staff. They've made no demands on them.

"I'm incredibly proud of the staff - they were all offered the chance to go home, but they decided to stay and they are working very long hours to keep us going. I'm hugely grateful to every one of them."

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The lockdown situation has also led to uncertainty for the business, which also includes the Montpellier House serviced apartments, Fat Badger pub and Yorkshire Hotel in Harrogate, the Lamb & Lion Inn, Marmadukes Hotel and Guy Fawkes Inn in York, and the Black Horse Inn at Kirkby Fleetham.

"Four of our sites are closed and another hotel in York is being used for NHS workers. We had plans in place and we're confident we will see this through. The main worry is the unknown length of time this could go on for - it could be until August or September and the question is how long can any business survive if its doors are locked for months?

"We are in a strong position but I feel for others in this sector. There are some who won't see this out for the full distance and the impact will be felt in the long term."