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Government pressured to extend furlough as unemployment soars to highest level in four years

PRESSURE mounted on the government today to extend furlough support until the end of the year after figures showed unemployment in Britain at its highest level since 2016.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 200,000 workers lost their jobs between September and the second Covid-19 lockdown in November as total unemployment hit 5 per cent, equating to 1.72 million people out of work.

Redundancies also surged to a new record and growth in vacancies plummeted as the resurgence of the virus drove widespread job cuts.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady implored Chancellor Rishi Sunak to immediately end the “uncertainty and anxiety” by extending the job retention scheme, set to end in April, until the end of 2021.

Ms O’Grady said: “The more people we keep in work, the faster we can recover. 

“But with the job retention scheme set to end [in the spring], millions of people’s jobs hang in the balance.

“When the government planned to withdraw support last autumn, despite restrictions still being in place, unemployment surged. We can’t let that happen again.”

The TUC said that last year’s two greatest rises in unemployment occurred in months when support was reduced or expected to end.

In July, when the initial job retention scheme ended and a less generous replacement was introduced, unemployment increased by 17 per cent.

There was another surge as the latter scheme’s end date of October 31 approached, before it was extended into this year on November 5.

The ONS revealed a 168,000 rise in redundancies in the autumn to an unprecedented 395,000, with just 81,000 new jobs also becoming available — half the level of growth seen in the summer.

In total, 828,000 workers have now lost their jobs since February last year, just before the pandemic hit Britain.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “The government mustn’t repeat the mistake of the last time round, when it delayed on extending the job retention scheme only to do so at the 11th hour. 

“That dithering sent workers to the dole queue. Workers and employers can’t wait. Fix furlough and extend it now.”

Matthew Percival, director of people and skills at bosses’ group the CBI, agreed, calling on the Chancellor to take immediate action to extend furlough until at least the end of June to avoid a “cliff edge.”

Many individuals and business have been particularly badly hit by the latest lockdown, which began on January 5, especially those in hospitality and high-street retail.

On Monday alone, more than 12,000 shopworkers’ jobs were put at risk when Boohoo announced a £55 million deal to buy the Debenhams brand and website but close the chain’s 118 stores across the UK.

“This crisis has gone on far longer than any of us hoped — and every job lost is a tragedy,” Mr Sunak said.

“While the NHS is working hard to protect people with the vaccine, we’re throwing everything we’ve got at supporting businesses, individuals and families.

“At the upcoming Budget [in March], the government will set out how we’ll ensure public services continue to receive the investment they need.”

The Treasury promised that the Chancellor’s Budget announcement would also outline the next stages of its Plan for Jobs.

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