By Elizabeth Howcroft
LONDON (Reuters) - British employers' demand for staff plummeted in March with job vacancies contracting for the first time in nearly 11 years as the coronavirus pandemic brought hiring activity to a halt, a survey of recruiters showed on Wednesday.
A measure of vacancies compiled by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) and accountants KPMG, fell to 47.8 in March, below the no-change 50 level for the first time since September 2009.
The fall in the index -- which is monitored by the Bank of England -- from 56 in February was the biggest monthly decline since the series began in October 1997.
Hiring activity took a nosedive, as permanent job placements fell at the fastest rate since February 2009. London was the hardest hit of England's regions, falling to 20.3 in March from 47.5 in February.
Temporary staff billings fell at the fastest rate since March 2009.
"The coronavirus pandemic has put the labour market on pause," said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the REC.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the country, Britain's shops, pubs, restaurants and businesses remain closed.
Recruiters said uncertainty around the duration of the government-ordered shutdown led firms to cancel or postpone recruitment plans.
However, the REC survey showed an uptick in demand for permanent and temporary staff in nursing, medical and care as the country tries to cope with a surge in demand in the healthcare sector.
The economic hit from coronavirus has been widespread. British consumer confidence fell by the most in over 45 years while new car sales and construction activity dropped faster than during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
A poll by YouGov on April 5 found that more than one in 20 people in Britain had lost their job due to the outbreak. A further 13% of respondents said their hours or pay had been cut.
Looking ahead, the REC's Carberry said firms in sectors such as recruitment and hospitality needed to be able to access government aid more quickly in order to stop the short-term disruption becoming longer-term economic depression.
A survey published earlier on Wednesday showed only a fraction of companies had successfully applied for the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and grants for small businesses.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by William Schomberg)