President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he was opposed to mandatory coronavirus vaccinations for Russians but urged the jab-sceptic population to get inoculated, as his country battles a deadly third wave.
His comments came as Russia earlier Wednesday reported 669 coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours, a pandemic high of fatalities for the second day in a row, according to a government tally.
Russia in mid-June saw infections spike in a third wave driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India, authorities have said, and worsened by a sluggish inoculation drive.
Although free jabs have been available since early December, only around 15% of Russia’s population had received at least one dose as of Wednesday according to the Gogov website, which tallies Covid figures from the regions.
The slow uptake prompted Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin earlier this month to order mandatory jabs for service sector employees, with more than a dozen regions in Russia since following suit.
The widening policy has prompted concerns that all Russians eventually would be required to be vaccinated, which Putin shot down Wednesday while fielding questions in his annual phone-in session.
“I do not support mandatory vaccinations,” the Russian president said.
Still, Putin – as he has done repeatedly in recent months – called on Russians to get vaccinated.
“It is necessary to listen, not to people who understand little about this and spread rumours, but to specialists,” he told Russians, the majority of whom polls show oppose receiving coronavirus jabs.
“If a person is sick without a vaccine, then the long-term consequences can be very serious,” the 68-year-old Russian leader said.
Surveys show that Russians are particularly sceptical of the country’s homegrown jabs – Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, CoviVac and the one-dose Sputnik Light.
Putin said Wednesday that the four homegrown vaccines were better than foreign alternatives, naming AstraZeneca and Pfizer. He added that he himself had been vaccinated with Sputnik V.
The president’s plea for Russians to get inoculated came after the Kremlin Tuesday conceded that its target of vaccinating 60 percent of the population by autumn will not be possible.
Critics say the third wave has been spurred by the failure to lock down, a measure taken during the first wave last spring but avoided this time by Russian authorities to support a struggling economy.
Asked Wednesday if he supported a new lockdown, Putin said regional authorities were instead promoting localised mandatory vaccinations and other measures to avoid introducing new quarantines.
In Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, Mayor Sobyanin has ordered businesses to send home at least 30% of unvaccinated employees and restaurants to only allow inside patrons who have been inoculated or were infected in the past six months.
The country’s second-worst hotspot Saint Petersburg has avoided imposing strict restrictions, however, and on Friday it is due to host a Euro 2020 quarter-final drawing hundreds of supporters from abroad.
Dozens of Finland supporters were infected in the city after they travelled there earlier this month for their team’s loss to Belgium in the group stage.
Nationwide, infections grew on Wednesday by 21,042, bringing Russia’s caseload to more than 5.5 million – the fifth-highest worldwide, according to an AFP tally.
With 135,214 deaths from the virus, Russia has the highest official toll from Covid-19 in Europe – even as authorities have been accused of downplaying the severity of the country’s outbreak.
Under a broader definition for deaths linked to coronavirus, statistics agency Rosstat at the end of April said that Russia has seen at least 270,000 fatalities.