UK economy shrinks 20pc in a month to fall back to 2002 level

LONDON (AP) – The British economy has seen nearly two decades worth of growth wiped out in a single month as a result of the lockdown measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics said yesterday 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, education, health and car sales.

The monthly decline was unprecedented in scale and, adding the more modest 5.8 per cent decline in March, means the United Kingdom (UK) 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 Research Director at the Resolution Foundation James Smith.

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

People walk past closed shops along Kings Road in London. PHOTO: AP

Lockdown restrictions are slowly being eased, which should see the economy to start to pick up. On Monday, for example, nonessential shops, such as department stores and electronic retailers, can reopen if they can abide by social 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 a public health.

The government is coming under mounting pressure to relax the social distancing guidelines in order to help the economy. People currently have to remain two metres apart, which is more than most countries and above the World Health Organization’s minimum recommendation of staying one metre apart. The government said 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 people face unemployment.

General Secretary of the umbrella Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady said targetted 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 GBP2,500 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 GBP19.6 billion (USD25 billion). 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 Investment Strategist at Aberdeen Standard Investments Luke Bartholomew.