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Mobile World Congress in Barcelona called off over coronavirus fears

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The Mobile World Congress (MWC), the annual telecoms industry gathering that draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona, was cancelled on Wednesday after a mass exodus by exhibitors due to fears over the Covid-19 outbreak.

Bowing to the inevitable, the GSMA telecoms association that hosts the get-together said it had cancelled the Feb 24-27 event despite assurances from local and national health officials that it would have been safe to hold it.

"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," chief executive John Hoffman said in a statement.

The announcement followed a crisis meeting of the GSMA board, after its hand was forced by the pullout of anchor European members including Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, BT and Nokia.

Spain's Telefonica, one of the biggest telecom operators not to have announced it was pulling out, said on Wednesday evening it "understands the GSMA's decision to cancel the Mobile World Congress 2020 due to the situation generated by coronavirus".


Barcelona's mayor Ada Colau said earlier she wanted to send a "message of calm", insisting the city was ready to host the event, while Spanish health officials reiterated there was no reason to call off the MWC.

The World Health Organisation, a UN agency leading the coronavirus crisis response, had also called in vain for calm.

"There is no evidence at present to suggest there is community spread outside China, so WHO is not currently requesting that large gatherings are cancelled," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in Geneva.

That failed, however, to alleviate concerns among major exhibitors that the precautions would be insufficient to halt the virus, which has spread beyond China's borders to two dozen countries.

The Chinese contingent at MWC numbered 5,000 to 6,000 in recent years, making the event particularly vulnerable given the virus has killed more than 1,370 people and infected more than 59,800 in mainland China.