Up to four million US government employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or face enhanced restrictions and testing measures, under new rules announced by president Joe Biden.
Speaking at the White House, Mr Biden said that the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant is causing a new wave of Covid cases in the United States, as he urged people to get vaccinated.
“We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly and more safely,” he said.
“This is about life and death. I know people talk about freedom... but with freedom comes responsibility. Your decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else. Unvaccinated people spread the virus.”
Both federal employees and contractors will be subject to the new rules. If proof of vaccination is not offered, people will be required to wear masks, take weekly or twice-weekly tests and face restrictions on official travel.
Mr Biden strongly encouraged private companies to introduce similar requirements, and has directed the Pentagon to look into “how and when” Covid vaccinations can be added to the list of required vaccines for members of the military.
Some states, such as New York, have already introduced new rules for state workers, while companies including Google and the Washington Post are now requiring staff to be vaccinated.
The US Chamber of Commerce welcomed Mr Biden’s announcement, describing the new requirements as “prudent”.
The president also called on state and local governments to offer $100 to residents to get vaccinated.
"I know it might sound unfair to folks who have got vaccinated already. If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them," he said, noting that when supermarket chain Kroger offered payments to workers in February, vaccination rates increased by 50 to 75 per cent among employees.
On the need for booster shots, Mr Biden said that “as of now, no American needs a booster.” But he added: “If the science tells us there’s a need for boosters, then that’s something we’ll do. And we have purchased a supply, all the supply we need be ready if that is called for.”
The decision to require vaccinations or tests is a controversial one in the United States, with several Republican-controlled states introducing their own laws outlawing any requirement for face masks for businesses. Republicans in the House of Representatives have strongly criticised house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to mandate mask-wearing in the US Capitol following revised federal health guidance this week.
Mr Biden also hailed new economic figures released on Thursday which showed that the US economy grew by 1.6 per cent in the second quarter. “Our economy grew more in six months than most Wall Street forecasters expected for the entire year,” said Mr Biden.
The year-on-year growth of 6.5 per cent means that the US economy is now back at pre-pandemic levels. But the second-quarter growth figures were below most analysts’ expectations, with signs of labour shortages and supply chain constraints holding back the pace of the economic recovery.
In a boost to the president, the Senate voted to start a debate on a $1 trillion infrastructure package, with 17 Republicans joining their 50 Democratic counterparts in supporting the measure.
The bipartisan agreement will now move through the legislative process before final sign-off.
Negotiations have yet to begin, however, on a second, more ambitious package worth up to $3.5 trillion.
Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, who along with West Virginia's Joe Manchin leans more to the right politically than most of her Democrat colleagues in the Senate, said she will oppose a package of that size.
Her comments prompted a robust response from left-leaning Democrats in the House of Representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who accused Ms Sinema of “tanking” her own party’s investment in childcare, climate and infrastructure.