MADRID/PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) – Organizers of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) agonized on Wednesday over whether to cancel or press ahead with a smaller version of the event after major European telecom companies pulled out over the coronavirus outbreak.
An employee walks past a banner of MWC20 (Mobile World Congress) in Barcelona, Spain February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
The GSMA telecoms association that hosts the Barcelona get-together faced a dilemma after local health authorities said they saw no reason to cancel the Feb. 24-27 event, the biggest on the industry’s annual calendar.
Several sources said the GSMA’s board, consisting of 25 industry bosses, was holding a ‘virtual’ meeting to consider its options. Two sources familiar with the matter said no final decision had been reached on what to do.
Deutsche Telekom (DTEGn.DE), Vodafone (VOD.L), BT (BT.L) and Nokia (NOKIA.HE) said earlier they would not be attending. A source said Orange (ORAN.PA) was set to join them, although the French company said it had not taken any final decision.
The MWC draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona and gives a lift of half a billion dollars to the local economy, the GSMA estimates. With big-name withdrawals from Europe coming on top of those from the United States, Japan and South Korea, the event risks being a shadow of its normal self.
The Chinese contingent at MWC has numbered 5,000-6,000 in recent years, making the event particularly vulnerable given the outbreak of the virus that has killed more than 1,100 people on the Chinese mainland.
In its latest statement, the GSMA said it was monitoring the “fast-changing situation” around the coronavirus while working with the Spanish and global health authorities to ensure the wellbeing of attendees.
Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau said on Wednesday she wanted to send a “message of calm”, insisting the city was ready to host the event. Health Minister Salvador Illa said the government’s goal was protecting people’s health, but that it would take additional measures if necessary.
The World Health Organization, the UN agency leading the coronavirus crisis response, also urged calm.
“There is no evidence at present to suggest that there is community spread outside China, so WHO is not currently requesting that large gatherings are canceled,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters in Geneva.
That failed, however, to alleviate concerns among major exhibitors that the precautions would be insufficient to halt the virus that has spread beyond China’s borders to two dozen countries.
“To bring people together and connect them: That is what Telekom stands for. This is also what the Mobile World Congress, the ‘class reunion’ of our industry, stands for,” Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges posted on LinkedIn.
He added, however, that large gatherings of people with many international guests posed a particular risk: “To take this risk would be irresponsible.”
ON THE HOOK
The fate of this year’s MWC may hinge on the terms under which any events insurance taken out by the GSMA would pay out.
This would be unlikely to kick in unless restrictions are imposed on public gatherings in the country on health grounds, insurance experts say.
“Where there is no ban and businesses make their own commercial decision, I cannot see the market paying out,” said Edel Ryan, who is on the Special Risks team at broker Marsh JLT Specialty.
Major Chinese exhibitors, led by Huawei [HWT.UL], have stuck to plans to attend, ordering at-risk staff to isolate themselves in advance and drafting in replacements from elsewhere to run event stands and host clients.
The GSMA had banned attendees from China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and required others to prove that they had been outside the country for at least two weeks prior to the event.
Coronavirus has proved to be contagious even when people who have caught it are asymptomatic, meaning that people attending might not even realize that they could infect others they meet at MWC.
Tracking the meetings and movements across the Fira trade grounds and the city of Barcelona of anyone who later tests positive would be a difficult task.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Supantha Mukherjee, Joan Faus, Can Sezer, Tarmo Virki, Stephanie Nebehay, Carolyn Cohn and Noor Zainab Hussein; editing by Keith Weir and Elaine Hardcastle
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