Mobile World Congress axed after firms quit over coronavirus fears

The world’s largest mobile phone trade fair, Mobile World Congress, has been cancelled after scores of the world’s biggest technology and telecommunications companies pulled out over fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

The MWC, which was due to be held in Barcelona on 24 February, was expecting more than 100,000 delegates from about 200 countries across the four days of the conference.

On Wednesday, GSMA, which organises the congress, was forced to admit it would have to axe this year’s event after more than 40 companies pulled out citing health and safety concerns.


How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

The list of no-shows had grown to become a who’s who of the world’s biggest tech and telco firms including BT, the owner of mobile firm EE, Facebook, Nokia, Ericsson, the US chipmaker Intel, Cisco, Amazon, Vodafone and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom.

The Chinese firm Huawei, the controversial smartphone and 5G component maker that was scheduled to be one of the event’s biggest exhibitors, had flown employees to Spain to self-quarantine in advance.

The GSMA had banned travellers from Hubei, the province at the centre of the virus outbreak. Approximately 5,000-6,000 (5-6%) of the attendees each year have come from China.

The trade show’s organisers had attempted to allay concerns by announcing more stringent health and safety measures including a ban on handshakes, and taking attendees’ temperatures. However, this appeared to backfire, galvanising companies who had been monitoring the situation to confirm they would pull out.

John Hoffman, the chief executive of GSMA, said the virus had made it impossible to hold the event.

“The GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concerns and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event,” said Hoffman. “The host city parties respect and understand this decision. The GSMA and the host city partners will continue to be working in unison and supporting each other for MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions.”

The organisation may have to bear the cost of a full cancellation unless the Spanish government changes its position on the coronavirus and moves to declare a health alert.

It will also represent a significant loss to Barcelona and the city’s hospitality industry. The show is estimated to be worth about €500m (£420m) to the city and provides 14,000 part-time jobs for local workers.