U.K. Population Growth Slowed Sharply at the Start of Pandemic

The U.K. population grew at its slowest pace since 2003 in the year through the middle of 2020 and may have fallen since then as the coronavirus prompted a departure of foreign workers, a preliminary government estimate shows.

The Office for National Statistics said provisional data suggest the number of people living in the country rose to 67.1 million in June 2020, an increase of 316,000 or 0.5% from the first half of 2019.

The figures were inflated by more foreigners arriving in the U.K. than leaving in the eight months prior to Britain imposing a full lockdown to contain the coronavirus. Between April and June, about 50,000 people a month exited the country due to travel restrictions and the loss of work when the pandemic shut most shops and restaurants. Those sectors employ a high proportion of workers from the European Union.

U.K. Population Growth Slowed Sharply at the Start of Pandemic

The pandemic has made it hard to track migration flows as officials can no longer question people face-to-face at ports, as they did before the crisis. Instead, they have had to rely on surveys carried out remotely.

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.

To gauge the full impact of the pandemic, the ONS published estimates of the population at the end of 2020 based on a range of migration scenarios. One in which 100,000 people left the U.K. in the second half of last year would see the population shrink by a similar number, though remain larger than in 2019, it said. The U.K. population last fell on an annual basis in 1982.

In reality, the drop could be much greater, with some economists calculating that hundreds of thousands of foreign-born workers have returned to their home countries during the pandemic.

U.K. Population Growth Slowed Sharply at the Start of Pandemic

“It’s important to remember that these are early population indicators based on new methods,” said Liz Mckeown, director of public policy analysis at the ONS. “There is uncertainty, and they will likely be subject to revision in the coming months, especially as more data becomes available.”

An official estimate of the population in the year to June last year is due in the summer.

What’s unclear now is how many of those foreign workers who have left the country will eventually return. For EU citizens, tighter immigration rules since Britain completed its withdrawal from the EU at the start of the year has made the route back harder unless they already had settled status.

The new “modelled” estimates from the ONS are based on International Passenger Survey data up to the start of the pandemic, in combination with more timely travel and border flow administrative data for the following months. Population growth was also held back by more deaths and a continued fall in the number of births.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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