How The UK's Unemployment Figures Compare With Europe

The latest ONS figures show that the number of payroll employees in the UK has dropped by 819,000 since the start of Covid-19.

The number of workers on the payroll in the UK has dropped by more than 800,000 since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the latest Office for National Statistics figures show.

The UK unemployment rate, in the three months to October 2020, was estimated at 4.9%, 1.2% higher than it was a year before.

It comes after Boris Johnson stood in the Commons during prime minister’s questions (PMQs) in October and said: “There is no country in Europe where so much support... has been given to the population to get through this crisis.”

“We will support jobs, we will support incomes, we will support businesses... we will do whatever it takes,” vowed Rishi Sunak in mid-March, with the government repeatedly maintaining that the UK’s financial support schemes are “generous by international comparison”.

With support policies shifting constantly, it’s difficult to compare different countries’ schemes.

But we can look to the employment figures as a starting point for understanding what impact they’ve had on the workforce.

Economist Julian Hessop pointed out the UK’s unemployment figures are still relatively low compared to many European countries, as per the Euro area unemployment figures put out in early December by Eurostat.

The Euro zone as a whole has an unemployment rate of 8.4%, and the EU nations an average of 7.6%, though these vary wildly from country to country.

But while this may be true, the above chart only shows the unemployment rate as whole, and not how it has shifted throughout the Covid-19 crisis. For example, while Italy has a high unemployment rate – 9.8% – it already had an unemployment rate of 9.5% a year previously, meaning unemployment in the country has increased by around 0.3%.

For context, Carlo Bonomi, president of the General Confederation of Italian Industry, recently told the country that Covid-19 had cost Italy some 500,000 jobs.

So while the UK still has a relatively low unemployment rate, it has experienced a more significant increase in unemployment over the course of the past year and, of course, the Covid-19 crisis.

In France, the unemployment rate has increased by 0.3%, from approximately 2.35m people in 2019 to 2.53m people in October 2020.

And HuffPost Spain’s Marina Velasco said that to date, approximately 700,000 jobs had been lost in the country since the start of the pandemic – less than the UK’s total of 819,000 – but the country’s already-high unemployment rate of 14% in October 2020 has now increased by 2.2% across the year.

With a population of 84m, Germany’s employment rate remains one of the lowest in Europe – 4.5% in October 2020. However, this represents an increase of 1.4% in unemployment – marginally higher than the UK’s 1.2% – on the previous year.

At the start of December it emerged that despite a second lockdown Germany’s unemployment rate dipped in November, though estimates suggest that the number of companies using the country’s short-term salary support program has risen.

On the whole, rises in unemployment in Germany, which has Europe’s biggest economy, and elsewhere on the continent have been moderate by international standards – a trend that has been attributed by many to the support schemes, such as furlough, on offer.

Without comparable figures, the latest unemployment rate for Greece was not included in Eurostat’s data.

HuffPost Greece editor Antonis Fourlis said that according to the latest available figures published in August the country’s unemployment rate stands at 16.8% – unchanged from August 2019.

However, Fourlis explained: “It sounds surprising but unemployment is decreasing because it was extremely high until 2019 as a result of the long crisis in Greece.

“Also I strongly believe that as long as all kinds of shops and businesses remain closed under the lockdown, we cannot calculate the unemployment [rate]. After reopening we will find out that many will then close forever.

“Now they are still hoping... [they will] still get some support from the government to pay salaries, but not everybody will be in a position to reopen.”