The UK unemployment rate fell to 4.9 per cent in the three months to February but there are now more than 800,000 fewer workers on company payrolls than before the pandemic, official figures show.
As businesses adapted to lockdown measures put in place at the start of the year, the jobless rate fell slightly from 5 per cent – the first time the quarterly rate has declined since 2019.
Between December and February, 1.67 million people were unemployed, the Office for National Statistics reported. The figure was 50,000 lower than in the previous three months but 311,000 higher than a year ago.
Monthly figures revealed a decline in the number of workers on company payrolls as businesses prepared to reopen after lockdown.
The number of payrolled workers dropped by 56,000 between February and March, meaning there were 813,000 fewer workers on payrolls than in March 2020.
More than half of people who lost jobs in the past year were aged under 25 with a further quarter aged between 25 and 34.
The figures indicate that the peak in unemployment is likely to below than had been feared last year when the government had planned to end the furlough scheme. Around five million people remain on the scheme.
There were signs of a boost to the jobs market as pandemic restrictions ease with a near-16 per cent jump in vacancies in March. However, the number of vacancies remains 22.7 per cent down on a year ago. Arts, entertainment and recreation, and accommodation and food services continue to be the sectors worst affected.
Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, said: “The latest figures suggest that the jobs market has been broadly stable in recent months after the major shock of last spring.
“The number of people on payroll fell slightly in March after a few months of growth.
“There are, though, over 800,000 fewer employees than before the pandemic struck, and with around five million people employed but still on furlough, the labour market remains subdued.
“However, with the prospect of businesses reopening, there was a marked rise in job vacancies in March, especially in sectors such as hospitality.”
Suren Thiru, head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: ”Unemployment remains on course to peak towards the end of 2021, once the furlough scheme expires and those who stopped job hunting during the pandemic look to return to the workforce as restrictions ease.
“Although the furlough scheme will limit the peak in job losses, the longer-term structural unemployment caused by Covid-19, particularly among young people, may mean that the road back to pre-pandemic levels lags behind the wider economic recovery.”