The cost of Britain’s furlough scheme to protect jobs threatened by the pandemic and its economic shock waves has reached £53.8 billion ($76.2bn), data released on Thursday showed.
Jobs covered by the furlough protections rose to 4.7 million by the end of January as the country endured another national lockdown, the Treasury said.
The data was published as Chancellor Rishi Sunak decides the future of the scheme as part of his budget presentation on March 3.
Furlough protections are to end on April 30 but the budget could be a way of extending them further into the year, and protecting the economy from a feared wave of redundancies that may be triggered if the scheme is abandoned.
Mr Sunak is also giving himself scope to raise corporation tax as he tries to navigate the country out of a Covid-induced economic black hole and the UK’s deepest recession since 1709.
Borrowing in the current financial year is at about £400bn, the highest as a share of the economy since the Second World War.
The number of jobs furloughed as of January 31 was well below the peak of 8.9 million in May, during Britain's first coronavirus lockdown, but above the 3.9 million total during a second England-wide lockdown in November.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research think tank estimates the furlough programme – which pays employees 80 per cent of their salary – is likely to cost more than £70bn by the end of April.
Britain's economy shrank 9.9 per cent last year.
The country entered a third lockdown in early January to slow the spread of new coronavirus variants and aid the distribution of vaccines, which has proceeded faster than elsewhere in Europe.
A separate survey from the Office for National Statistics showed businesses had furloughed 20 per cent of staff on average in early February.
Only 72 per cent of companies said they were trading. Non-essential shops, restaurants, pubs, gyms, hairdressers and other businesses closed under lockdown rules.
Lending to businesses under three government-guaranteed schemes stood at £72.9bn on February 21, up from £70.7bn a month earlier, the finance ministry said.