Britain’s economy returned to growth in February despite continuing government Covid restrictions as businesses adapted to lockdown and exports to the EU started to recover after a record plunge in the first month since Brexit.
The Office for National Statistics said gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 0.4% in February from a month earlier as the economy showed some signs of improvement after a revised drop of 2.2% in January.
Despite the toughest lockdown conditions since the first wave of the virus remaining in place, retailers recorded a pickup in sales, while growth in car production fuelled a rise in manufacturing activity after a poor January and construction grew strongly.
However, the economy remains 7.8% smaller than in February 2020 before the pandemic struck.
Economists said the improved performance came as businesses and households adapted to lockdown conditions and in anticipation of lockdown lifting after the government announced its roadmap for easing restrictions.
Suren Thiru, the head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the easing of restrictions over the coming months and progress in the vaccine programme would help to release further pent-up demand. “However, hope of a sustained consumer-led revival may prove too optimistic as the economic scarring caused by Covid may trigger a renewed reluctance to spend as government support winds down,” he said.
UK exports of goods to the EU recovered after a record plunge during January in the first month since Brexit, rising by £3.7bn, or 46.6% on the month as businesses started to adapt to the new relationship and after a pause in deliveries a month earlier due to the Covid lockdown and fears over Brexit border disruption.
The ONS said the increase in exports was driven by machinery and transport equipment and chemicals, particularly cars and medicinal and pharmaceutical products.
However, EU exports remained about 12% below levels a year earlier, in a worse performance than with the rest of the world, in a sign of continuing border friction.