There was a time, in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19, that politicians and economists yearned for a V-shaped recovery – an immediate bounce-back from the financial devastation of lockdowns.
The second wave put paid to that, and as we tiptoe out of the most recent restrictions, the line drawn by GDP is starting to look more like an England supporter’s ECG than a smooth path back to economic health.
For the third consecutive month, GDP growth slowed in May. The increase of 0.8% was a fourth consecutive month of growth – almost inevitable given the restrictions on personal and professional life that applied at the start of 2021 – but only half of what had been forecast.
What growth there was came from hospitality where restaurants and hotels, closed to indoor trade by government order until 17 May, saw a 37.1% increase in business, and the sector as a whole contributed almost all of the monthly growth.
Without the easing of restrictions the economy would have been flatlining as supply bottlenecks and lingering consumer reticence constrained spending.
The biggest drag on GDP came courtesy of the global microchip shortage that has slowed vehicle production lines and delayed production of consumer electronics. Transport manufacturing fell 16.5% in the month and, while recovery is under way, chip producers say shortages will linger until the end of the year.
The economy remains 3.1% smaller than pre-crisis, and while continued easing of restrictions means economic activity is likely to increase, some have pushed back expectations of when it will return to the pre-COVID levels of February 2020 from August to October.
A key factor will be consumer confidence as legal restrictions are dropped and our COVID security becomes dependent on the personal choices made by others.
The impact of a new wave of cases on businesses’ ability to function will also be crucial. The pinging of the NHS app may be a bell tolling for economic recovery.