A woman begs as shoppers walk along Oxford Street in London. Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto

British government debt has exceeded £2 trillion ($US2.61 trillion) for the first time following massive state borrowing as the coronavirus pandemic pushed the UK economy deep into recession, official data showed Friday.

At the end of July, total accumulated debt hit £2.004 trillion, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

That equated to more than 100 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product, or total economic output, for the first time since 1961. 

The debt increased by £227.6 billion compared with July 2019, reflecting the huge increase in borrowing needed to tackle the pandemic.

“This crisis has put the public finances under significant strain as we have seen a hit to our economy and taken action to support millions of jobs, businesses and livelihoods,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said. 

“Without that support things would have been far worse.”

Net borrowing between April and the end of July is estimated to have hit £150.5 billion, the ONS said.

Last month’s deficit hit £26.7 billion as the UK emerged from a strict lockdown imposed at the end of March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“Today’s figures are a stark reminder that we must return our public finances to a sustainable footing over time, which will require taking difficult decisions,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak said. 

“It is also why we are taking action now to support the growth and jobs which pay for our public services, by helping businesses to reopen safely.”

Retail recovery

Separate official data showed that British retail sales jumped by 3.6 percent in July from June as shops, restaurants and pubs reopened.

“Retail sales have now regained all the ground lost during the height of the coronavirus restrictions as more stores open for trade and online sales remain at historically high levels,” ONS statistician Jonathan Athow said Friday.

“While still below their pre-pandemic levels, both fuel and clothing sales continued to recover.

“Meanwhile, food sales fell back from their recent peaks as people started to venture back into pubs and restaurants,” Athow said.

Marks and Spencer, the British food and clothes retailer, announced this week that it was cutting 7,000 jobs as COVID-19 pushes customers to shop online. 

The retailer joins the likes of UK department store chains Debenhams and John Lewis, as well as pharmacy group Boots, in cutting thousands of jobs owing to pandemic fallout.

Britain’s economy shrank by a fifth in the second quarter, more than any European neighbor, as the lockdown plunged the country into its deepest recession on record.  

Even though the UK economy is beginning to rebound as the government eases strict confinement measures – gross domestic product grew by 8.7 percent in June – analysts expect a surge in unemployment by the end of the year.

In October, Sunak plans to end the government’s furlough scheme that is paying up to 80 percent of wages for about 10 million workers during the pandemic.