Fear of coronavirus prompts GSMA to cancel Mobile World Congress

The organiser decided to do so after top companies including LG, Facebook, Ericsson, Nokia, Amazon and Vodafone pulled out of the Barcelona event

Workers clean glass doors at the Mobile World Congress MWC venue on February 12, 2020 at the Fira Barcelona Montjuic centre in Barcelona. Organisers of the World Mobile Congress were holding urgent talks today over the fate of the world's top mobile fair after a string of industry heavyweights withdrew over coronavirus, COVID-19, fears, a source close to the meeting said. / AFP / LLUIS GENE
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Organisers of the Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest phone show, scrapped the event after the coronavirus outbreak sparked a mass exodus of top participants including LG, Facebook, Ericsson, Nokia, Amazon and Vodafone.

The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), the main organiser of MWC in Barcelona, announced the cancellation of the 2020 event on Wednesday, saying it was "impossible" to proceed.

"The GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event," said John Hoffman, chief executive of GSMA.

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The GSMA is a trade body representing more than 750 mobile operators and nearly 400 companies.

The companies pulled out of the event citing health risks the coronavirus posed to their employees. More than 100,000 attendees were at the show last year, of which about 6 per cent were from China.

Leading smartphone manufacturers Samsung and Huawei, who launch new products at the MWC stage, had also downsized their presence for this year's event scheduled from February 24 to 27.

China's death toll due to coronavirus climbed to 1,355 on Thursday. The number of infections jumped by 14,840, sending the total number of cases in China towards 60,000.

Trying its best to save the event, the GSMA had responded to the concerns of participants by outlining strict guidelines such as a no-handshake policy, setting up health screening at the venue and asking people not to travel from certain parts of China. But the measures were not enough to dissuade companies from pulling out.

Deutsche Telekom chief executive Tim Hoettges said large gatherings of people with many international guests posed a particular risk.

“To take this risk would be irresponsible,” he wrote  on LinkedIn.

Industry analysts said the biggest victims of the show being called off will be smaller companies that have invested huge amounts to ensure successful participation.

"The GSMA needs to be careful that there is not a knock-on effect from this year's cancellation," said Ben Wood, analyst at research and advisory company CCS Insight.

Major companies and many attendees will be reviewing the importance of MWC to their business and the GSMA must work hard to have a clear path forward, he added.

“The health and safety of our employees and the public are our top priority," said Chinese smartphone manufacturer Vivo. "Based on the present situation, we decided to withdraw from our debut at MWC 2020 and other related events later this month in Barcelona”.