Beijing imposes mainland China’s first Covid vaccine mandate

From July 11, people will need to show proof of vaccination to enter a wide range of public places in the Chinese capital, including cinemas, libraries, museums, gyms, stadiums and training centers, a city health official told a news briefing Wednesday.

People who are “not suitable” for vaccination will be exempted from the requirement, the official added, without clarifying how they can provide proof for exemption.

It also remains unclear how people who received vaccination overseas can satisfy the requirement. China’s health code systems — which are used to show proof of vaccination — do not currently recognize foreign vaccines, and those who were inoculated abroad have not been able to get their vaccinations registered.

Places that have limited capacity or where reservations are needed are required to prioritize entry to vaccinated customers.

Senior citizens visiting venues offering activities specifically for the elderly, such as recreational centers and game rooms, 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 capable of escaping antibodies. An outbreak of the new subvariant has already shut down the northwestern city of Xi’an, where entertainment, sports and religious venues have been closed — and restaurants limited to takeaway and delivery services — until next Wednesday.

Lag in elderly vaccination rate

China remains an outlier for its continued zero-Covid approach, which has seen cities across the country — including Beijing and Shanghai — recently placed under full or partial lockdown. The strategy — which relies on mass testing, quarantine and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the virus — has wrecked economic activity.

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

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

The city has also required people who work in epidemic prevention and control, health care, public transport, delivery and other higher risks sectors to be fully vaccinated.

As of January, 98% of Beijing’s over 20 million residents have been fully vaccinated, including 12 million people who have received a booster shot, according to a government statement.

But the vaccination rate among the elderly is lower. As of April, 80% of Beijing residents over 60 had been vaccinated, state news agency Xinhua 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 authorities’ guidance that vaccination should be voluntary.

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

Last September, the National Health Commission said it was wrong for local governments to impose restrictions on movement for unvaccinated people in order to speed up the inoculation campaign — and that such policies should be corrected in a timely manner.

“Covid-19 vaccination should be based on the principles of informed consent, and (be) voluntary,” Wu Liangyou, deputy head of the commission, told a news conference.

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