U.K. Jobless Rate Highest Since 2016 as Second Lockdown Hits

LONDON (Reuters) -
The Jobcentre building, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in  Britain. (Reuters/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo)

Britain’s unemployment rate hit its highest in nearly five years in the three months to November, when coronavirus cases began to rise for a second time and most of the country returned to a partial lockdown.

Redundancies touched a record high, taking the unemployment rate to 5.0%, its highest since mid-2016, according to official data, although the increase was slightly weaker than economists’ forecasts.

There were some signs of a limited recovery in December, when lockdown measures eased, although a deterioration is likely in early 2021 as a tougher lockdown shut schools and closed most non-essential businesses to the public.

Unemployment has been kept down by the government’s Job Retention Scheme, which supported 2.4 million jobs as of Oct. 31, down from a peak of 8.9 million in May.

The program is Britain’s most expensive COVID-19 economic support measure, costing 46.4 billion pounds ($63 billion) up to mid-December, and is due to end on April 30.

“This crisis has gone on far longer than any of us hoped – and every job lost as a result is a tragedy,” finance minister Sunak said after Tuesday’s data was released. “We’re throwing everything we’ve got at supporting businesses, individuals and families.”

Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, urged Sunak to extend support for jobs in his March 3 budget.

“The latest lockdown will have only added further pressure on firms with troubled balance sheets, which means more jobs are likely to be lost in the coming months,” Parikh said.

The number of people in employment dropped 88,000 in the three months to the end of November, the smallest fall since the start of the pandemic and less than the 100,000 drop forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said this month that he believed the underlying jobless rate was higher, as the official definition excludes people without work who have temporarily postponed their job search due to the pandemic.