UK payrolls above pre-pandemic level and job vacancies soar

Business

LONDON (AP) — The number of people on payroll in the U.K. has soared back to levels last seen before the coronavirus pandemic struck a year and a half ago, official figures showed Tuesday in the latest clear signal that the lifting of lockdown restrictions has prompted businesses to ramp up hiring.

The Office for National Statistics said that payroll numbers rose by 241,000 between July and August to 29.1 million. The total is now 1,000 higher than it was the month before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

The statistics agency also said that vacancy numbers increased by 249,000 in the three months to August to more than 1 million for the first time since records began in 2001 amid labor shortages in industries such as accommodation and food services that are partly related to the pandemic but also because of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

It also found that the the overall rate of unemployment dropped by 0.3 percentage point in July to 4.6% while the employment rate ticked up by 0.5 percentage point to 75.2%.

Overall, the figures point to the positive impact of the lifting of restrictions over the past few months and the rebound in confidence following the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines across the U.K.

National statistician Jonathan Athow cautioned that the jobs recovery isn’t even and that “in hard-hit areas such as London, and sectors such as hospitality and arts and leisure, the numbers of workers remain well down on pre-pandemic levels.”

There’s also unease as to what will happen in the labor market over the coming months as the government’s salary support program, which has kept a lid on unemployment during the pandemic, comes to an end.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which is set to end at the end of September, saw the government pay 80% of the salaries of those workers unable to work because of lockdown measures. The program helped support around 12 million people at its height. But the number has been falling as lockdown restrictions were lifted and now stands at around 1.6 million.

“With the furlough scheme ending in little over two weeks’ time, we should expect a fresh rise in unemployment this autumn, particularly among furloughed staff that aren’t able to return to their previous jobs,” said Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Unions are urging the government to come up with new support, particularly for sectors like aviation which are still struggling in the face of restrictions.

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