The UK economy grew in April at its fastest pace since the coronavirus reopening last summer, with strong retail spending and the full resumption of schooling boosting performance and raising hopes of a rapid rebound to pre-pandemic levels of output.
The volume of goods and services produced by the UK economy rose 2.3 per cent in the month, according to the Office for National Statistics. This more than offset the third lockdown’s decline of 1.5 per cent in the first quarter and put the increase in gross domestic product on a path for a strong second quarter.
With performance slightly better than economists’ already optimistic forecasts, GDP was 3.7 per cent below the pre-pandemic level in February 2020, the smallest gap since the start of the crisis.
Jonathan Athow, ONS deputy national statistician for economic statistics, said: “Strong growth in retail spending, increased car and caravan purchases, schools being open for the full month and the beginning of the reopening of hospitality all boosted the economy in April.”
He added that the growth rate would have been even stronger without declines in the often-erratic pharmaceutical industry, shutdowns at many car plants caused by the global semiconductor shortage and large-scale oilfield maintenance.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the figures were “a promising sign that our economy is beginning to recover”.
The services sector grew 3.4 per cent compared with the previous month, with the reopening of consumer-facing services performing the “heavy lifting” for the economy, according to Jay Mawji, managing director at the online trading provider, IX Prime.
Accommodation service activities grew nearly 70 per cent as caravan parks and holiday lets picked up, with similar rates of expansion registered in personal service activities, such as hairdressing. Output in food and beverage service activities grew by 39 per cent as pubs, restaurants and cafés could serve customers in outdoor seating areas.
Education was also a major source of growth as more pupils returned to in-person lessons in April.
Output is expected to expand further in May following the reopening of indoor hospitality and other businesses.
Ed Monk, associate director, at the investment management company Fidelity International, said “it was spending in the newly reopened non-essential retail and hospitality sector that added the most momentum in the month, suggesting that households had been clamouring to get out and spend again.”
He noted that pre-pandemic levels of output could now be surpassed by the end of the second quarter, adding “to the sense at the Bank of England that some monetary stimulus may soon have to be removed”.
The shadow of coronavirus and a delay to the final reopening of the economy still hangs over the outlook, but economists downplayed concerns.
James Smith, economist at investment bank ING, said the end of most restrictions on June 21 was likely to be postponed, but probably only by a few weeks until more people had been fully vaccinated, which would mean “that from an economic perspective, the impact probably won’t be huge”.
Separate data published by the ONS on Friday showed that Britain’s trade grew gradually in April as the effects of coronavirus and the imposition of customs controls after Brexit no longer dominated the figures.
Imports grew from both EU and non-EU countries in the month, the ONS said, while exports to the EU edged up, but dipped to non-EU countries.
The overall statistical picture on trade following the end of the transition period with the EU is complicated by the UK figures not matching those published by bloc’s statistical agencies, which show a much larger Brexit effect on trade volumes in both imports and exports since the start of the year.