The number of workers on payrolls in Britain has dramatically fallen by 649,000 since the beginning of coronavirus lockdown measures in March, official figures have revealed.

Analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of hours worked in the UK plunged to record lows from March to June as the country grappled with controlling the spread of COVID-19, with lockdown forcing businesses to close temporarily.

The total number of weekly hours worked plummeted by 175.3 million hours compared to the same period in 2019.

Figures released on Thursday suggested, however, that the increase in job losses over the three-month period as a result of the pandemic were not as high as originally feared due to many large businesses choosing to furlough their employees.

It does mean that the true extent of the economic downturn won’t be known until October when the UK government’s furlough scheme is due to end.

“As the pandemic took hold, the labour market weakened markedly, but that rate of decline slowed into June, though this is before recent reports of job losses,” Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said.

“There are now almost two-thirds of a million fewer employees on the payroll than before the lockdown, according to the latest tax data,” he added.

“The Labour Force Survey is showing only a small fall in employment, but shows a large number of people who report working no hours and getting no pay.”

The UK also experienced an all-time record low in the number of job vacancies, with companies freezing recruitment. Available roles fell from 463,000 to 333,000, 23% lower than the previous record set in April 2009 at the height of the global banking crisis.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: “I think this is a very concerning time because we could see that being worsened by changes going ahead with the furlough scheme.

“We do think that for particularly badly affected sectors there does need to be continuing support, otherwise we will see extra waves of people potentially moving into unemployment or economic inactivity.”

Also speaking to BBC Radio 4, the UK Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, admitted it was a “very, very difficult” time, commenting: “As a government, we have put in £160 billion (€176 billion) of support through the furlough scheme, through loans, through grants to businesses.

“If we hadn’t done that the economy would have been in a far worse position.”

He added: “It is going to be very, very difficult for lots of people and we are going to do everything we can to support them and keep businesses going through this very difficult period.”

The UK unemployment rate remained stable at around 3.9%, just 0.1% higher than the same time last year, according to ONS figures.

The news comes as China announced that its economy grew by 3.2% from April to June, the first country to show positive growth since the start of the pandemic.

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