Fifth of workers furloughed on average, ONS figures show

Experts say statistics demonstrate how vital the job retention scheme is, but call for more flexibility in the system as lockdown is extended by three weeks

UK businesses have furloughed a fifth of their workforce on average, the latest official figures have shown.

Among organisations that continued trading since lockdown began, on average 21 per cent of their workforces had been furloughed under the government’s job retention scheme, the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data suggested.

Businesses also had an average of 5 per cent of their staff either off sick or self-isolating due to coronavirus, while 70 per cent of their workforce continued carrying out their roles as normal.

Yesterday the ONS also released data showing since the lockdown came into effect, just under half (45.8 per cent) of working adults were working from home.

Daniel Tomlinson, economist at think tank the Resolution Foundation, said the data demonstrated “just how important the government’s job retention scheme is, particularly for those on lower incomes”. He added it was “preventing the inevitable economic crisis the UK is facing becoming a mass unemployment crisis too”.

But, Tomlinson said, the scheme only offered support for employees whose work had dried up completely, and there was little help for workers who had seen a decrease in working hours. According to the ONS figures, almost three in 10 (28.5 per cent) businesses had decreased staff working hours in response to the pandemic, and two-fifths (40.5 per cent) had reduced staffing levels in the short term.

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“The job retention scheme should therefore be extended to support workers in this position, offering help to those who are working part-time or reduced hours,” said Tomlinson. ”This would cushion the impact of large falls in earnings for those still working, and enable furloughed workers to return to work on shorter hours when lockdown measures begin to lift.”

Mark Beatson, senior labour market analyst at the CIPD, warned government support measures such as the job retention scheme could not continue forever. “The government will face tricky decisions in the coming months about how quickly to restart the economy and how quickly to turn off the current support,” he said.

Like Tomlinson, he advocated for greater flexibility in the scheme, adding: “There may be an argument for making the job retention scheme more flexible if it is extended beyond the end of May to allow short-time working so employers can bring staff back gradually on reduced hours from furlough, rather than an all-or-nothing change.”

Yesterday’s statistics were part of the ONS’s new ‘faster indicator’ statistics about the pandemic. Responses were collected from over 5,000 organisations about the impact of coronavirus on their business over the period of 23 March – when lockdown measures were introduced – to 5 April.

According to the data, 75 per cent of businesses were continuing to trade, while a quarter (25 per cent) said they had temporarily closed or paused trading.

Of those still trading, 38 per cent reported their turnover was “substantially lower than normal”, while 35 per cent said turnover was unaffected by the crisis. Almost a fifth (17 per cent) said turnover was slightly lower than normal, while 5 per cent said turnover had increased since lockdown was introduced.

Neil Carberry, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said employers were trying hard to keep people in work, but the majority were seeing sales decline. “New ways of working, resilience and creativity are helping keep businesses going – but they are not enough on their own.

“Using the furlough scheme is a sensible step that protects jobs and good businesses, who will be essential to a quick economic recovery,” he said.

The data came as the government announced a three-week extension to lockdown measures. At the same time, following uncertainty about the enforcement of social distancing guidance, the Crown Prosecution Service issued extra guidelines for police services on identifying what constituted a “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave their home while lockdown measures were still in place.

The guidance advised there was no requirement to be a key or essential worker to travel for work. “Anyone can travel to work if it is not reasonably possible to work from home,” the guidance said.

“A request from an employer to attend the workplace should be sufficient. But there is no requirement for the person to have any written proof of a need to go to work or volunteering,” it said, adding that police should not ask for ID or any other kinds of documents. 

For those working from home, the guidance has clarified that working outside of the home – for example, in the local park instead of the house – was not permitted.