Spanish and Catalan authorities have insisted the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona will go ahead later this month despite some of the world’s biggest tech firms pulling out because of coronavirus fears.
The MWC – which is billed as “the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry” and which attracts around 100,000 visitors from almost 200 countries – looks set to be significantly affected by the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, Facebook, Cisco Systems, US chipmaker Intel and Chinese smartphone manufacturer Vivo became the latest firms to cancel, citing health and safety concerns.
Ericsson, Amazon, Sony and LG have also abandoned plans to attend the congress, due to be held from 24-27 February.
China’s top smartphone manufacturer, Huawei, and its smaller rival ZTE, are still set to attend and have said their executives and staff will undergo a self-imposed two-week quarantine period before appearing at the show.
ZTE has also said its stand and equipment would be disinfected daily, with all of its booth exhibition staff brought in from countries outside of China, mainly Europe.
In a statement posted on its website , GSMA – which organises the congress – said the coronavirus had “created disruption, in particular for exhibitors and attendees from around the world, including the 5-6,000 (5-6%) who have historically attended from China”.
It offered its sympathy to all those affected but said the congress would go ahead as planned.
However, GSMA said no travellers from Hubei province would be allowed to attend the event, while all travellers who had been in China would need to prove they have been out of the country for 14 days before the congress started.
Attendees will have their temperatures taken and will also have to self-certify that they have not been in contact with any infected people.
An “increased cleaning and disinfection programme” will be implemented in catering areas, toilets and public touch-screens, and on surfaces and handrails.
Other measures include a “no-handshake policy” for all those attending, a “microphone disinfecting” protocol for all speakers, and the distribution of sanitising and disinfection products.
Two people have so far tested positive for the virus in Spain – one in Mallorca and another on the remote Canary island of La Gomera.
Spain’s finance minister, María Jesús Montero, said Spain’s health system was “absolutely prepared to respond to any contingency”, adding that both the people infected with the coronavirus were asymptomatic but remained in isolation.
“Over the last few hours, we’ve learned that some multinationals have decided not to come to our country to attend an important technology event as a precautionary measure for their workers,” she said on Tuesday.
“We want to send out a message of confidence and trust. The congress’s organisers have already announced additional safety measures to prevent any risk for attendees. We also want people to know that we have one of the best public health systems in the world.”
The European mobile phone network Orange said the firm was still attending MWC but was “monitoring the situation closely”. He added: “Needless to say, the health and safety of our employees is a top priority.” The UK network O2 said it was also currently planning to attend, but would keep the situation under review.
Jaume Collboni, Barcelona’s first deputy mayor, said the city was ready to host the MWC and had the necessary health, safety and public transport measures in place.
“As the city council, we’re implementing the recommendations made by the Spanish health authorities, by the World Health Organization, and by the Catalan health ministry,” he told the Guardian.
“They’re saying that we’re not on an especially high alert and that there are only two confirmed cases in Spain. There are no extraordinary measures planned at the moment.”
Collboni said that any decision on cancelling the congress would be taken by GSMA.
Reports in the Spanish media suggested that GSMA’s board is set to meet on Friday to decide whether or not to go ahead with the congress. Asked about the reports, a spokesperson said: “We don’t comment on internal meetings.”
On Monday, Catalonia’s digital and public administration minister, Jordi Puigneró, said the congress would go ahead and called for calm.
“We are obviously concerned by what’s happening with the issue of coronavirus and we are putting in place measures so that everything can proceed as normal,” he told the Catalan radio station RAC1 .“But the MWC is not hanging by a thread.”
The Barcelona Hotels Union said it was following the global situation with concern and confirmed that some hotels in the city had already had bookings cancelled because of the coronavirus. But it added: “It is still too soon to determine what the effect will be on global reservations.”
AFP contributed to this report