A measure of the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Britain soared to its highest level since 1996 in April, the first full month of the government's coronavirus lockdown, data published today showed. 

The claimant count rose by 856,500 - the biggest ever month-on-month leap - to 2.097 million, a 69% increase, the Office for National Statistics said. 

A Reuters poll of economists had produced a median forecast for a leap of 676,500 in the claimant count with forecasts ranging widely from just over 56,000 to as high as 1.5 million. 

The surge would have been even sharper without a government programme to pay 80% of the wages of workers put on temporary leave by their employers, who do not count towards the unemployment total. 

"While only covering the first weeks of restrictions, our figures show Covid-19 is having a major impact on the labour market," the ONS's Deputy National Statistician, Jonathan Athow, said. 

Experimental data for jobs in April, based on tax figures, showed the number of people on companies' payrolls fell by 1.6% from March and were 1.2% lower than a year before. 

"Vacancies were sharply down too, with hospitality again falling steepest," Athow said. 

The ONS said Britain's unemployment rate fell to 3.9% in the three months from January to March, covering only one week of the lockdown, from 4.0% in the three months to February. 

Employment grew by 211,000 in the first three months of the year compared with forecast for jobs growth of 50,000 in the Reuters poll. 

Britain's unemployment rate could hit 10% in the April-June period, the country's budget forecasters have said, even with millions of workers shielded by the government's scheme to pay their wages while they are only temporarily laid off.