China Covid outbreak: Beijing imposes first mainland vaccination mandate in light of Omicron subvariant

From July 11, people will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter a variety of public places in the Chinese capital, including cinemas, libraries, museums, gyms, stadiums and training centers, a city health official said in a news conference on Wednesday.

People who are “unsuitable” for vaccination would be exempted from the requirement, the official added, without clarifying how they can provide proof of the exemption.

It also remains unclear how people who have been vaccinated abroad can meet the requirement. China’s health code systems – used to verify vaccinations – do not currently recognize foreign vaccines, and those vaccinated abroad have been unable to register their vaccinations.

Places with limited capacity or where reservations are required must allow access for vaccinated customers.

Seniors who attend venues that offer activities specifically for older people, such as recreation centers and playrooms, should be vaccinated as soon as possible, the official said.

The vaccination mandate comes as Beijing reported three cases of subvariant BA.5.2 Omicron, which is highly transmissible and able to escape antibodies. An outbreak of the new sub-variant has already crippled the northwest city of Xi’an, where entertainment, sports and religious establishments have been shuttered — and restaurants limited to takeaway and delivery services — until next Wednesday.
A medical worker takes a swab sample at a nucleic acid testing station in Beijing on July 6.

Delay in immunization coverage among the elderly

China remains an outlier for its continued zero-Covid approach, with cities across the country – including Beijing and Shanghai – recently under full or partial lockdown. The strategy – which relies on mass testing, quarantine and lockdown to prevent a resurgence of the virus – has wrecked economic activity.

Chinese authorities have ramped up efforts to increase vaccination rates, particularly among the elderly population, as Omicron has caused multiple outbreaks this year.

In Beijing, residents must prove a negative Covid test within 72 hours to enter any public place.

The city has also required people working in epidemic prevention and control, healthcare, public transport, delivery and other higher-risk sectors to be fully vaccinated.

As of 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 vaccination coverage among older people is lower. By April, 80% of Beijing residents over 60 had been vaccinated, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

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

On Chinese social media, users were quick to point out that Beijing’s vaccination mandate appears to contradict guidance from national health authorities that vaccination should be voluntary.

“Since when is voluntary vaccination mandatory?” a comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

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

“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 news conference.