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February 23, 2021

U.K. unemployment climbed to its highest rate in almost five years in the fourth quarter as the economic toll from the coronavirus pandemic continued to mount.

The number of people looking for work rose 121,000 from the third quarter, taking the jobless rate to 5.1%, the most since early 2016, the Office for National Statistics said Tuesday. The number of people in work fell by 114,000.

The figures increase pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver on his pledge to do “whatever it takes” to support workers and business through the pandemic. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said he will use his budget on March 3 to extend government support programs due to expire in the coming weeks.

“Every job lost is a personal tragedy,” Sunak said in a statement. “That’s why throughout the crisis, my focus has been on doing everything we can to protect jobs and livelihoods.”

Unemployment has been held down by tens of billions of pounds of wage subsidies, which were still supporting almost 4 million jobs at the end of last year following the deepest economic slump in three centuries. Adding time to the furlough program beyond April 30 could mean that Britain avoids many of the job losses currently predicted by economists.

The Bank of England expects the jobless rate to peak at 7.8% in the third quarter if the furlough program finishes as currently planned. That’s almost 2.7 million people, compared with 1.7 million the end of last year.

The number of redundancies rose by 29,000 in the quarter to 343,000, marking the smallest increase since the second quarter of the year. Self employment accounted for all of the decline in the number of people in work.

Data based on tax returns showed the number of people on company payrolls rose almost 83,000 in January despite tougher measures to fight a second wave of the virus that closed schools and most non-essential businesses. Still, that number is still down by 726,000 since February, before the pandemic struck. Of those that lost jobs, more than half -- 425,000 -- were younger than 25.

Business lobbies want the government not only to extend furloughing, but also support for business struggling with mounting debts and negligible sales.

Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the headline labor market figures conceal the “incredibly hard choices” that firms are having to make. He urged the government to cut employer national insurance contributions, a payroll tax, and reinstate bonuses for firms that retain workers.

“We’re looking ahead to our recovery,” said Mims Davies, the government’s employment minister. “Our plan for jobs is creating new opportunities, boosting skills, and delivering a package of support for people of all ages, getting Brits back into work as we push to build back better.”

Average earnings growth accelerated more quickly than expected to 4.7% in the fourth quarter, the highest since 2008. The ONS said the figures were inflated by lower-paid jobs dropping out of the calculation. Underlying pay growth was just under 3%.

Source: Bloomberg
Image Source: Getty Images