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U.K. economy shrinks 20% in a month to fall back to 2002 level

The British economy has seen nearly two decades worth of growth wiped out as a result of the lockdown measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics said Friday that the economy shrank by a colossal 20.4 per cent in April, the first full month that the country was under lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. All areas of the economy were hit during the month, in particular pubs, education, health and car sales.

The monthly decline was unprecedented in scale and, adding the more modest — but still substantial — 5.8 per cent decline in March, means the U.K. economy is around 25 per cent smaller than it was in February.

“This startling fall in activity takes output in April back to around its level in July 2002,” said James Smith, research director at the Resolution Foundation.

With much of the economy still mothballed in May and June, the U.K. is heading for one of its deepest recessions ever — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has warned that the country is set to be the hardest-hit developed economy this year.

Restrictions easing

Lockdown restrictions are slowly being eased, which should propel the economy to start to pick up. On Monday, for example, nonessential shops, such as department stores and electronics retailers, can reopen if they can abide by physical distancing requirements.

But hopes that the bounceback in the economy will be as strong as the slide have receded given that many restrictions, such as on social contact, are set to remain in place so long as the pandemic is a threat to public health.

A vendor makes coffee in a coffee shop at Camden Market in London on June 1 as outdoor markets reopened following an easing of the lockdown restrictions. The U.K. economy is heading for a deep recession. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The government is under pressure to relax physical distancing guidelines to help the economy. People currently have to remain two metres apart, which is more than required in most countries and above the World Health Organization’s minimum recommendation of staying one metre apart. The government says it is following scientific advice about containing the spread of the virus but that the required distance is under constant review.

The recovery is also set to be held back by the fact that many businesses just aren’t going to make it out of the slump and millions of workers face unemployment. Some people also remain wary about going to shops or to commute so long as the virus remains a threat. Uncertainty over the U.K.’s trading relationship with the European Union at the start of 2021 is another factor that could keep a lid on business sentiment and the recovery.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the umbrella Trades Union Congress, said targeted support for hard-hit sectors of the economy is needed, as well as a jobs guarantee to help those who lose work.

“The more people in work, the faster we will work our way out of recession,” she said.

Companies have largely held off from cutting jobs during the lockdown as a result of the Job Retention Scheme, under which the government pays up to 80 per cent of the salaries of workers retained, up to £2,500 ($4,278 Cdn) a month.

Treasury chief Rishi Sunak has said that from August, firms will have to start making contributions to the salaries of workers that are retained but not working, and that the scheme will close two months later.

That’s raised concerns that Britain will see a spike in unemployment then. In total, 8.9 million jobs have been furloughed under the scheme by 1.1 million employers at a cost to the government of £19.6 billion  ($33.5 billion Cdn). Even if 10 per cent of those lose their jobs, it would increase unemployment substantially. In March, there were around 1.35 million people unemployed.

“It will take a very long time and significant monetary and fiscal stimulus for the economy to climb out of a hole this large,” said Luke Bartholomew, investment strategist at Aberdeen Standard Investments.

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