The UK economy suffered a bigger slump than any other major European economy in the second quarter, shrinking by a fifth and falling into its deepest recession on record. Official data released on Wednesday showed that gross domestic product fell 20.4 per cent quarter-on-quarter, with widespread contractions across all sectors.
The figures confirm that the pandemic has hit the UK harder than other developed economies. After the second-quarter contraction, the decline in UK GDP since the end of 2019 is double that in the US and second only to Spain among European peers.
A recovery from the depths of the lockdown gained momentum in June, with output growing 8.7 per cent month-on-month — faster than most economists had expected, although broadly in line with the Bank of England’s latest predictions. This means GDP has grown 11.3 per cent since its April low, but remains 17.2 per cent beneath its level in February, before the coronavirus crisis hit.
“The recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has led to the biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record,” said Jonathan Athow, ONS deputy national statistician. “Overall, productivity saw its largest fall in the second quarter since the three-day week,” he added, referring to a measure introduced in 1973. Sterling was little changed at around $1.30 following the release of the data.
The FTSE 100 stock index, however, outperformed its European peers early on Wednesday morning, rising 0.6 per cent. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said in response to the data: “Today’s figures confirm that hard times are here . . . But while there are difficult choices to be made ahead, we will get through this.” The figures led to renewed calls from business groups for the government to extend wage support through the furlough scheme and step up other forms of support for the economy.
Tej Parikh, economist at the Institute of Directors lobby group, called for cuts in employers’ national insurance contributions to support hiring, and for the Treasury to explore options for restructuring business loans. Fhaheen Khan, economist at Make UK, the manufacturers organisation, said the government should be “flexible in extending job support schemes in the same way as our competitors” Alpesh Paleja, economist at the CBI employers group, said the dual threat of a second wave of infection and slow progress over Brexit talks underlined the need for “maximum agility” from government.
James Smith, research director at the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, added: “Although today’s data tells us that the economy is recovering as lockdown restrictions ease, it still has a long way to go. And that challenge will be bigger for the UK than for most other rich countries.” Dean Turner, economist at UBS Wealth Management, said that although the quarterly numbers were bleak, the upbeat June figures suggested there was a “strong bounce in activity as the economy emerged from lockdown.”
“We expect pent-up consumer demand to drive a strong recovery in the third quarter, although this momentum will gradually fade as the outlook for the labour market deteriorates,” he said. Analysts said the UK’s underperformance was partly due to the length of its lockdown, and partly because the consumer-facing services sector that was hardest hit by social distancing has a bigger weight in GDP, accounting for 80 per cent of the economy.