Beijing is introducing vaccine requirements to enter libraries, museums and other public gathering places on Monday, the city government said, as it encouraged older people to get vaccinated.
The city government announced the change on Wednesday, months after many other countries had introduced so-called vaccine passports, possibly signaling a pivot to a more forceful approach to inoculation. Chinese public health experts have said that the country, which remains almost entirely sealed off from the rest of the world, could reopen when vaccination rates increase. Top officials have worried publicly about a slowing economy.
But the Chinese government has not introduced any nationwide mandates and has sent mixed messages to the local officials it has charged with increasing uptake. When some local governments blocked the unvaccinated from entering supermarkets and other public spaces last year, an official with the National Health Commission criticized them.
Vaccination of older Chinese people has lagged behind that of other age groups in part because of skepticism toward the safety of China’s domestically developed vaccines. The country has not approved any foreign-made shots. Strict lockdown measures also kept the virus at bay, leading some to feel little urgency to get vaccinated.
Even as officials began offering a mix of carrot-and-stick incentives, older people held out. As of early May, 82 percent of those over age 60 had received two shots, compared with 89 percent in the general population. Among the oldest Chinese, rates were far lower: 51 percent of those over 80 had received two shots in March, the last time the central government released those numbers.
Recent outbreaks have shown how dangerous low vaccination rates can be. In Hong Kong, the semiautonomous city, an outbreak earlier this year made the city’s coronavirus death rate the world’s highest for a time because of the large number of unvaccinated older people. Deaths in Shanghai, which endured mainland China’s worst outbreak since early 2020, were also concentrated in older residents. In late April, 62 percent of Shanghai residents over 60 had received two shots and 38 percent had received a booster.
Meanwhile, the highly transmissible Omicron variant has continued to evade China’s goal of elimination.
Cases have begun rising in Shanghai again, a month after its two-month lockdown ended, with dozens of new cases reported on Wednesday. Officials launched new rounds of mass testing in most of the city’s districts, leading some residents to fear a fresh lockdown. In the western city of Xi’an, schools and many businesses have been closed after a flare-up. And the semiautonomous city of Macau, the casino hub in the south, locked down a hotel and closed a large shopping mall to contain an outbreak there.
In Hong Kong, where cases have also risen in recent weeks, officials seem to be exploring ways to reopen the financial hub. The government there said Thursday that it had suspended a rule temporarily banning airlines from flying into the city if they carried a certain number of passengers who tested positive. But city officials have also said they remain committed to reopening the border with the mainland, which is unlikely to occur unless infections can be controlled.