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UK manufacturing slid before coronavirus crisis escalated: survey

[LONDON] Manufacturing in Britain weakened sharply in early 2020 even before concerns about the coronavirus crisis escalated, adding urgency to the need for a trade deal with the European Union, an industry survey showed on Monday.

Trade body Make UK and accounts BDO said exports shrank for the first time since late 2016 and output slumped as factories ran down stocks they had built up before a Brexit deadline in October. The survey was conducted in the three weeks to Feb. 19.

Make UK cut its forecast for British manufacturing output in 2020 as a whole, saying it now predicted a drop of 2.1 per cent compared with previous forecast for a rise of 0.3 per cent. It warned that the coronavirus outbreak could mean a further cut.

"Even before the current situation, the shocking drop in exports could not have come at a worse time ahead of potentially difficult trade talks where the clock is running down fast," said Seamus Nevin, chief economist at Make UK.

"It is now vital that government works with industry to limit the damage to industry and takes whatever steps are necessary to safeguard skills in particular."

Britain and the EU are trying to strike a trade agreement before Dec 31 when tariffs and other barriers to exports are due to go up.

A separate Make UK poll conducted just after Britain left the EU on Jan 31 pointed to some reticence among customers in the bloc about using British suppliers.

Make UK said 35.6 per cent of businesses said sentiment had worsened, while 61.5 per cent said there had been no change. Only 2.9 per cent said EU customers viewed them in a better light since Brexit.

Also on Monday, a survey published by property website Rightmove showed asking prices for houses in Britain rose in March by 3.5 per cent in annual terms, up from 2.9 per cent in February and marking the strongest growth since December 2016.

"The market has been waiting for several years for a window of certainty, and 2020 seemed set to be the year when many would look to make a move and satisfy their pent-up housing needs," Rightmove director Miles Shipside said.

"However, the current fast pace of the housing market could now be temporarily affected by the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus."

REUTERS