Coronavirus unemployment rates

Current projections estimate UK unemployment numbers higher than those of the Great Depression.

The year 2020 has offered many surprises, including COVID-19. Once it hit Europe and the UK, measures were taken to protect the citizens of each country. While social distancing and quarantine are saving lives, they are also devastating the tourism industry, companies and the economy. So far the UK employment rate in the three months to April 2020 was estimated at 76.4%, with 3.9% qualifying as unemployed.

Coronavirus has hit the UK hard with the lockdown leading to many redundancies, furloughing or less freelance work available. A lot of people are having to dip into savings to avoid going into debt. The government has also introduced measures like payment holidays to help people. We have looked into how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the number of Brits who are unemployed, furloughed and claiming Universal Credit.

Quick facts

  • Unemployment: Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, the unemployment rate was 3.80%, but may is said to surge once the furlough scheme ends in October.
  • Furlough: Instead of being let go, an employer can put their employees on furlough. This means the government will cover 80% of the employees’ salaries as financial relief. Those businesses that have closed down during the lockdown have furloughed 77.60% of their employees.
  • Universal Credit: While unemployed, you can apply for Universal Credit for financial help. 2,800,00 Universal Credit claims were made up until May 2020, with an average increase of 23.3% each month.


Before the onset of the virus, the UK unemployment rate for the 3 months leading up to February 2020 was estimated at 3.8%, largely unchanged compared with a year earlier. However, the drastic measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus could have a potentially devastating impact on the employment of millions of Brits.

Counting the 5 million people who are on furlough as unemployed, that figure will be added to the current 1.29 million people (3.8% of Brits) who do not have a job. This means that the unemployment rate can potentially surge to 20% by the end of June, which would be the highest unemployment rate within the last 50 years of available records.

Year Unemployment rate
1971 4.1
1972 4.3
1973 3.7
1974 3.7
1975 4.5
1976 5.4
1977 5.6
1978 5.5
1979 5.4
1980 6.8
1981 9.6
1982 10.7
1983 11.5
1984 11.8
1985 11.4
1986 11.3
1987 10.4
1988 8.6
1989 7.2
1990 7.1
1991 8.9
1992 9.9
1993 10.4
1994 9.5
1995 8.6
1996 8.1
1997 6.9
1998 6.2
1999 6.0
2000 5.4
2001 5.1
2002 5.2
2003 5.0
2004 4.8
2005 4.8
2006 5.4
2007 5.3
2008 5.7
2009 7.6
2010 7.9
2011 8.1
2012 8.0
2013 7.6
2014 6.2
2015 5.4
2016 4.9
2017 4.4
2018 4.1
2019 3.8
2020 20.0*

Unemployment compared to other historical recessions

Most people are still acutely aware of the devastating effects of the 2008 economic crisis, which cost millions of Brits not only their jobs, but their savings as well. The crisis represented the UK’s severest recession since the 1950s, leading to an unemployment rate of 8% in the years that followed. However, if the current trend continues, unemployment rates are expected to rise to as high as 20%. This is close to double the rate during the 1990 recession and almost a third higher than during the Great Depression.

Time period Unemployment percentage
The Great Depression 15.40%
Early 1980s recession 11.50%
1990 recession 10.40%
2008 financial crisis 7.60%
2020 COVID pandemic 20%


Instead of getting fired, one can join the furlough scheme, which pays 80% of a worker’s salary up to a cap of £2,500 per month to stay at home. When on furlough, you’re not allowed to work for the company, but you’re still hired.

According to ONS data collected over the first 2 weeks of the government-mandated shutdown, 25% of businesses reported that they had temporarily closed or paused trading. Out of the 75% that continued operating, an average of 14.30% of the workforce has been furloughed under the terms of the government’s job retention scheme. On Monday 20 April, more than 140,000 firms applied for the scheme.

The British Chamber of Commerce also reported in its weekly COVID-19 tracker poll that the proportion of firms that have furloughed at least some staff has increased from 66% on the second week of April, to 71% by the following week.

For those businesses that are still operating and trading, 9.9% of their employees are on sick leave and 75.50% of all employees are still employed and working. 46.10% of all Brits who are still employed report that they are working from home.

Put on furlough leave Other and off sick or in self-isolation Made redundant Working as normal
Companies who hasn't closed 14.30% 9.90% 0.20% 75.50%
Companies that has closed or paused trading 77.60% 22.00% 0.50% 0.00%

Universal Credit claims

The Department of Work and Pensions experienced a tenfold increase in Universal Credit application in the last 2 weeks of March, with 950,000 successful claims being made. Since then, these numbers having gone up significantly to over 2.8 million claims in May. The department is expected to report even higher numbers by the end of May 2020. Universal Credit is a monthly payment from the government to those who are on a low income or unable to find work.

Looking at the total figures for March 2020, 1,246,900 benefit claims were filed by unemployed Brits. This is an increase of 17.58% compared to March 2019, when 1,060,500 claims were made. The standard monthly allowance for Universal Credit is £342.72 if you’re under 25 years old and £409.89 for those over 25. You can also apply for additional benefits that will add to the amount you get, for example, if you have children or high rent costs.

Year and month Number of benefit claims
2018 Jan 825,900
2018 Feb 833,900
2018 Mar 848,500
2018 Apr 861,600
2018 May 878,500
2018 Jun 888,200
2018 Jul 898,900
2018 Aug 912,700
2018 Sep 933,000
2018 Oct 954,200
2018 Nov 977,200
2018 Dec 999,000
2019 Jan 1,011,100
2019 Feb 1,037,900
2019 Mar 1,060,500
2019 Apr 1,079,600
2019 May 1,104,100
2019 Jun 1,135,500
2019 Jul 1,155,200
2019 Aug 1,171,500
2019 Sep 1,185,000
2019 Oct 1,211,400
2019 Nov 1,226,400
2019 Dec 1,229,000
2020 Jan 1,228,800
2020 Feb 1,234,700
2020 Mar 1,246,900


Click here for more research. For all media enquiries, please contact

Matt Mckenna
Head of UK communications
T: +44 20 8191 8806

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