To understand how severe the pandemic’s economic toll has been in Britain, you have to stretch back three centuries. The economy contracted by 9.9 percent in 2020, initial estimates from the Office for National Statistics showed on Friday. A study of historical data by the Bank of England shows that recession to be the worst since 1709, the year of the so-called Great Frost, an extraordinarily cold winter in Europe.
Even with nearly 300 billion pounds, or about $415 billion, in stimulus for businesses, jobs and public services including the National Health Service, the restrictions introduced to contain the pandemic shrunk the economy back down to its size in 2013.
Britain’s service sector, which makes up four-fifths of the country’s economy, declined by 8.9 percent. But the pain has been uneven: Restaurants, hotels, theaters and other leisure services have been particularly pummeled, while professional, financial and health services weren’t as badly hurt. A recent survey suggests that about half of hospitality businesses have less than three months of cash reserves.
The economic cost, in some ways, reflects the broader devastation of the pandemic. There have been more than 115,000 Covid-related deaths in Britain, which has the harrowing distinction of recording the most deaths in Europe.
But the outlook is improving, both for public health and for the economy. The country looks set to avoid a double-dip recession, which would have resulted from two consecutive quarters of negative growth following the downturn in the spring of 2020. In the last three months of the year, the statistics office reported, gross domestic product increased 1 percent from the previous quarter, more than most forecasters expected.
Despite the discovery of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus in Britain, the economy grew at the end of the year because more businesses were able to adapt to restrictions, schools remained open and contact tracing and widespread testing added to economic activity. Warehousing and transportation also added to growth as consumers spent more online during the holiday period and businesses stockpiled ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period.
The economy is expected to contract again in the first few months of 2021 because most of Britain is under a strict lockdown and trade has been disrupted by Brexit, but the rapid rollout of vaccines has bolstered expectations for an upbeat recovery later in the year. The Bank of England expects the economy to return to its pre-pandemic size by early 2022 as consumers spend the savings they accumulated while services, such as restaurants, hairdressers and hotels, have been closed.
The I.R.S. begins accepting tax returns on Friday….
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