Early estimates suggest 163,000 people lost their jobs in May, on top of 449,000 the previous month, as the coronavirus crisis lockdown took its toll on the UK economy.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) data covering the number of paid employees showed a fall of 2% since the country entered effective hibernation in March.

It released the experimental data as its own figures showed a leap in the so-called claimant count – jobless claims applications through Universal Credit.

The ONS recorded a rise of 528,000 – or 23% – last month to 2.8 million.

It meant the total had risen by 1.6 million since March.

The figures will make grim reading for the government which has, to date, spent £55bn propping up businesses through various support schemes and paying wages to millions of furloughed workers.

The ONS said its data demonstrated the impact the Job Retention Scheme had inflicted on workforce output.

Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for economic statistics, said: “The slowdown in the economy is now visibly hitting the labour market, especially in terms of hours worked.

“Early indicators for May show that the number of employees on payrolls were down over 600,000 compared with March.

“The claimant count was up again, though not all of these people are necessarily unemployed,” he said.

Wider ONS figures, covering the three months to April, suggested the jobless rate remained at 3.9% as the furlough scheme got in to gear.

Economists had expected to see a surge to 4.7%.

The ONS reported the steepest quarterly decrease in vacancies on record of 342,000 to 476,000 in the period.

The statistics body suggested that it remained to be seen whether surging Universal Credit claims and evidence of plunging payrolls would translate into actual jobs lost when official data, covering May, is released next month.

In response to the figures, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News: “We had feared, some people had feared, economists said the figures would be worse still.

“A lot of people of course, nearly 9 million people, are being protected by the furlough scheme and another more than 2.5 million self-employed in addition to that with enormous sums of money.”

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “The headline figures may not show it, but a lot has changed since April – with the claimant count rising to 2.8 million, the unemployment rate is likely to be much higher than 3.9% now.

“But with the lockdown being eased and the economy opening up, hiring should grow.”

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