Unemployment rate near record low on precipice of crisis but redundancies accelerated in March and April

Flybe workers protesting at Stormont after the airline collapsed in March. Picture Mark Marlow.
Ryan McAleer

THE north's unemployment rate remained near a record low of 2.5 per cent on the precipice of the coronavirus crisis, official figures confirmed yesterday.

The latest Northern Ireland labour market report for the three months to the end of February detected a marginal increase in unemployment, but the 72.5 per cent employment rate for 16 to 64 year-olds remained close to record levels, albeit still the joint weakest rate of any UK region.

The north's traditionally higher economic inactivity rate remained at 25.6 per cent for the three-month period, estimated to be around 574,000 people.

Northern Ireland's 2.5 per cent unemployment rate is also well below the four per cent UK average, and the 4.8 per cent in the Republic. The EU average stood at 6.6 per cent.

Largely a snapshot of the economy before the widespread lockdown came into effect midway through March, the report did reflect an acceleration in the rate of redundancies between February and April.

But Economist Richard Ramsey said the collapse of Flybe at the start of March played a significant part in the number of redundancies recorded last month.

In all, some 557 proposed redundancies were recorded by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) for March, with a further 712 proposed redundancies recorded for the first 20 days of April.

The number of confirmed redundancies during March stood at 231, bringing the total for the 2019/20 financial year to 3,050. The figure is almost 700 more than the 2,359 job losses recorded by NISRA for the 2018/19 financial year.

Of the confirmed 231 redundancies in March, around 90 per cent were concentrated in the greater Belfast area. Almost three-quarters (169) were in the transport and storage sector, understood to be largely job losses linked to Flybe's collapse.

But Mr Ramsey said: “That will change dramatically in coming weeks with a spread across sectors and across all parts of Northern Ireland.”

He said that the manufacturing sector had accounted for the most redundancies in each of the four years previous. But the sector only accounted for eight per cent of confirmed redundancies in the first quarter of 2020.

In 2008, manufacturing accounted for 76 per cent of job losses.

“A key difference between this recession and the last one will be the scale and concentration of job losses within the wider services sector,” said the economist.

The claimant count, including people on Jobseekers Allowance and some on Universal Credit, rose by 200 to 29,900 during March. But it's understood the reference point was taken on March 12, before the lock down measures came into effect.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said yesterday that the number of UK-wide job vacancies plunged by 52,000 to 795,000 for the three months to the end of March.

It said the manufacturing and retail sectors reported the largest decline in hiring over the period.

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