U.K. Population Grew at Slowest Rate Since 2002 as Pandemic Hit

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The U.K. population grew at its slowest pace in almost two decades last year as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

The Office for National Statistics said the number of people living in the country rose to a record 67.1 million as of June 2020, an increase of 284,000 from mid-2019. The 0.4% increase was the smallest since 2002 and even lower than estimated in preliminary figures published two months ago.

The slowdown reflected a sharp increase in deaths, restrictions on international travel and the numbers of people leaving the U.K. after the first lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 was imposed in March last year. About 47,000 people left the U.K. in the following three months. The majority were European Union citizens who found themselves out of work when shops, restaurants and other industries were forced to close.

U.K. Population Grew at Slowest Rate Since 2002 as Pandemic Hit

“The 12 months to June 2020 can be broken into two clear parts,” said Rich Pereira, deputy director of the Centre for Aging and Demography at the ONS. “The first eight months, when births, deaths and migration patterns were similar to trends seen in recent years,” while the four months from March showed sharp declines.

London saw a net loss of 101,000 people to other parts of the country. That’s consistent with evidence of people now able to work from home leaving big cities in search of space.

The population was boosted by more foreigners arriving in the U.K. than leaving in the eight months prior to Britain going into lockdown. However, the net emigration seen in the second quarter points to a significant exodus foreign workers as the pandemic dragged on.

With the economy now bouncing back strongly, restaurants and other firms that relied heavily on migrant workers before the pandemic are finding it difficult to fill vacancies. Brexit has also played a role, with fewer EU workers coming to the U.K. since the 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

U.K. Population Grew at Slowest Rate Since 2002 as Pandemic Hit

The pandemic has made it hard to track migration flows. The International Passenger Survey, which questioned arrivals face-to-face at entry ports, was suspended in March last year due to social distancing requirements. Since then, the ONS has been working on modeled estimates using travel and border flow administrative data.

For policy makers, knowing the size and composition of the population is important for the planning and allocation of resources. There are also big implications for potential economic growth and the public finances. A sharp fall in migration would mean less tax revenue to pay down the huge debts built up to help the country through the pandemic.

The latest snapshot of the population showed:

  • Deaths rose to their highest mid-year level since 1986, boosted by 55,000 fatalities involving Covid-19 in the year to June 2020
  • Births fell to their lowest since 2003, outnumbering deaths by just 31,000
  • Almost 65,000 people left the U.K. in the second quarter of 2020; fewer than 18,000 arrived amid travel restrictions
  • Emigration during the year was highest in major cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, and university towns such as Oxford and Cambridge
  • There were 11% fewer moves with the U.K., reflecting the impact of the pandemic on mobility.
U.K. Population Grew at Slowest Rate Since 2002 as Pandemic Hit

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