The UK unemployment rate rose to 5%, its highest since early 2016, in the three months to November as the coronavirus pandemic continued to take its toll on the economy and the country went back into a lockdown, official figures show today.

Separate data, also released by the Office for National Statistics, showed the number of employees on company payrolls in December was down 2.7% on a year earlier and 828,000 lower than at the start of the pandemic in February. 

UK unemployment has been kept down by the government's Job Retention Scheme, which supported 2.4 million jobs as of October 31, down from a peak of 8.9 million in May. 

The programme is Britain's most expensive Covid-19 economic support measure, costing £46.4 billion up to mid-December, and is due to end on April 30. 

Finance minister Rishi Sunak will set out future job support measures at his annual budget on March 3. 

Rising Covid cases last year repeatedly forced him to scrap plans to end the Job Retention Scheme. 

"This crisis has gone on far longer than any of us hoped – and every job lost as a result is a tragedy," Sunak said after today's data. 

"Whilst the NHS (National Health Service) is working hard to protect people with the vaccine we're throwing everything we’ve got at supporting businesses, individuals and families,"  he said. 

The data showed that the number of people in employment dropped 88,000 in the three months to the end of November, a smaller fall than the 100,000 drop forecast by economists in a Reuters poll. 

The jobless rate was below the 5.1% poll forecast. 

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said this month that he believed the underlying jobless rate was higher, as the official definition excludes people without work who have temporarily postponed their job search due to the pandemic. 

Britain went into a new Covid lockdown on January 5 due to a rapidly rising death toll that is now close to 100,000, the highest in Europe.