The UK jobless rate has fallen for the first time since the pandemic struck, despite the latest lockdown shutting large parts of the economy, according data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which recently said the rate of unemployment edged back to 5 per cent between November and January, down from 5.1 per cent in the previous three months.
Economists had expected the rate to rise to 5.2 per cent.
The data also showed the number of workers on UK payrolls increased for the third month in a row, up by 68,000 or 0.2 per cent in February, in what experts said was a further sign that the jobs market was stabilising.
But payroll worker numbers have now fallen by 693,000 since February 2020 after a devastating year, with more job losses to come after furlough ends.
More than half of this fall—368,000 jobs—were lost in the hospitality sector as lockdowns and restrictions hammered the industry, according to the figures.
ONS added that 123,000 payroll jobs were also lost in the hard-hit retail sector, while more than 60 per cent of the total fall over the past year was for those aged under 25 in a sign of the toll taken by the crisis on young workers.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “Coronavirus has caused one of the largest labour market shocks this country has ever faced, which is why protecting, supporting and creating jobs has been my focus throughout this crisis.
“We have taken decisive action with a £352 billion package of support,” he added.
Overall, unemployment stood at 1.7 million between November and January, up 11,000 over the quarter and 360,000 year-on-year, the ONS said. Employment was down 147,000 in the quarter at 32.4 million.
The ONS added that the number of non-UK born workers on payrolls fell by 177,800, or 4 per cent, year on year in the final quarter of 2020.