China Covid outbreak: Beijing imposes mainland’s first vaccine mandate over Omicron sub-variant

From July 11, people will have to show proof of vaccination to enter a wide range of public places in the Chinese capital, including cinemas, libraries, museums, gymnasiums, stadiums and training centers, a city health official said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

People “unsuitable” for vaccination will be exempt from the requirement, the official added, without specifying how they can provide proof of exemption.

It is also unclear how people who have been vaccinated abroad can meet the requirement. China’s health code systems – which are used to show proof of vaccination – currently do not recognize foreign vaccines, and those who have been vaccinated overseas have not been able to register their vaccines.

Locations that have limited capacity or where reservations are required are required to prioritize entry for vaccinated customers.

Seniors visiting places with activities specifically for seniors, such as recreation centers and playrooms, should be vaccinated as soon as possible, the official said.

The vaccine mandate comes as Beijing reported three cases of the BA.5.2 Omicron subvariant, which is highly transmissible and able to evade antibodies. An outbreak of the new subvariant has already shut down the country’s northwest city of Xi’an, where entertainment, sports and religious venues have been closed – and restaurants limited to take-out and of delivery – until next Wednesday.
A medical worker takes a swab sample at a nucleic acid testing station in Beijing on July 6.

Vaccination rate lag in the elderly

China remains an exception for its continued approach to zero Covid, which has seen cities across the country – including Beijing and Shanghai – recently placed on full or partial lockdown. The strategy – which relies on mass testing, quarantine and instant lockdowns to eradicate any resurgence of the virus – has destroyed economic activity.

Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to increase vaccination rates, especially among the elderly population, since Omicron caused successive outbreaks this year.

In Beijing, residents are already required to present proof of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours to enter all public places.

The city also required people who work in epidemic prevention and control, health care, public transportation, delivery and other high-risk sectors to be fully vaccinated.

In January, 98% of Beijing’s more than 20 million residents were fully vaccinated, including 12 million people who received a booster shot, according to a government statement.

But the vaccination rate among the elderly is lower. By April, 80 percent of Beijing residents over the age of 60 had been vaccinated, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Residents line up to get a throat swab at a testing site in Beijing on July 4.

On Chinese social media, users were quick to point out that Beijing’s vaccine mandate appeared to contradict national health authority guidelines that vaccination should be voluntary.

“When did voluntary vaccination become compulsory? a comment requested on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

Last September, the National Health Commission said local governments were wrong to impose movement restrictions on unvaccinated people in order to speed up the vaccination campaign – and that these policies should be corrected in due course.

“Vaccination against Covid-19 should be based on the principles of informed consent and (be) voluntary,” Wu Liangyou, deputy head of the commission, said at a press conference.

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