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UK employers began hiring again in March as they looked forward to the reopening of the economy, according to official figures that will bolster hopes that the labour market is on the mend.

The Office for National Statistics said the jobs market had been broadly stable over the past few months of lockdown. The unemployment rate averaged 4.9 per cent over the three months to February, edging down from 5 per cent the previous month. The rate of redundancies was much lower than in the autumn, before the extension of the government’s furlough scheme.

However, the employment rate was slightly lower than the previous quarter at 75.1 per cent; the inactivity rate for men rose to its highest since 2011; and real-time data collected by HM Revenue pointed to a fall of around 56,000, or 0.2 per cent, in the number of payrolled employees — the first fall after several months of recovery.

The most promising sign of recovery was a tentative pick-up in hiring over the past few weeks. The ONS said that vacancies increased by 16 per cent month on month in March, although hiring had slowed in the period before that as lockdown measures took hold.

“Another drop in unemployment, vacancies on the rise and over half a million people joining payrolls in the last month is welcome news as we continue on our road map to recovery,” said Mims Davies, minister for employment.