One of the largest and oldest schools in Northern Ireland is joining forces with the NHS to help staff in a hospital that will treat most coronavirus patients in Belfast.

St Malachy's College is a Catholic grammar school for boys that opened in 1833.

The Mater Hospital has been designated as the main treatment centre for coronavirus patients in Belfast.

The school and hospital sit side by side in the city.

They have a shared history. Both were opened by the Catholic Church and share the Bishop of Down and Connor as a trustee.

They will soon also have a shared present.

The school is handing over its premises to the NHS for use as showering and changing facilities for hospital staff.

"The good thing is that we have two changing areas," explains College principal Paul McBride.

"We have the sports hall and the old gym, and thankfully the showers and the facilities have been refurbished over the last couple of years, with cubicles and lockers and whatever.

Paul McBride

"So we can have a male and female side and we have a total of 50 showers at the moment, but the Belfast Health Trust could add more temporary ones if they feel they are needed."

Hospital staff will also be given use of the school car park.

Special permission has been granted for two holes to be cut in a listed historic wall that separates the school and the hospital to enable medical staff to move freely between the two sites without encountering members of the public.

Work has already begun on the temporary doorways. Each stone is being numbered as the temporary doorways will be filled in again when they are no longer needed.

One of the doorways will be used for staff to enter the hospital after putting on Personal Protective Equipment.

The other will be used at the end of their shifts to enter the school to shower and change before going home.

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"It means they can get suited and booted before going into work and then get cleaned up and changed so they are infection-free before getting into their cars and going home," says Mr McBride.

"The fact that they will be able to walk straight from the school into the hospital means they don't have to be worried about meeting members of the public and I think that is a huge advantage."

In a letter to parents, the principal said the college was proud to be able to play a role in the battle against Covid-19.

"All of us at the College should be pleased and indeed proud that we can allow our historic buildings and impressive facilities to support the NHS and play a vital role in the fight against the silent enemy, Covid-19," the letter says.

St Malachy’s opened in 1833 and has more than 1,100 pupils.

Past pupils include former Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, actor Ciaran Hinds, Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast John Finucane, and Northern Ireland’s former Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC.

The Belfast Health and Social Services Trust will take control of the premises from tomorrow.