The number of people claiming unemployment benefits increased by the most since records began in April to reach almost 2.1 million, according to official figures capturing the onset of the coronavirus crisis.
The Office for National Statistics said about 856,500 people signed up for universal credit and jobseeker’s allowance benefits in April, driving up the overall UK claimant count by 69% in a single month.
Economists said the surge marked the biggest monthly increase since comparable records began in the early 1970s, while the overall number of people claiming for benefits due to unemployment had risen above 2 million for the first time since 1996.
The first official attempts to gauge the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis also revealed the number of employees on company payrolls plunged by 450,000 at the start of April, in a reflection of staff being let go and reduced hiring. The number of vacancies posted by companies looking for new staff also halved.
The ONS said much of its official measurements of the jobs market were yet to catch up with the economy effectively grinding to a halt after the government imposed its nationwide lockdown on 23 March.
However, early estimates suggested the number of hours worked in Britain collapsed in the last two weeks of the month after restrictions came in, with the amount of time spent working falling to about 25% below normal levels.
Jonathan Athow, the deputy national statistician at the ONS, said: “This is a huge fall, and evidence of employers either putting staff on furlough and/or cutting the hours of those still working.”
He said the sectors with the biggest fall in hours worked were hotels, restaurants and construction, which had seen the biggest declines in economic activity. Healthcare hours were broadly unchanged.
Providing a snapshot of the jobs market before Covid-19 struck, the ONS said its headline measurement of unemployment fell to 3.9% in the three months to March, while the percentage of people in work hit a joint-record high.
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