Public sector employment, UK: December 2020

Estimates of people employed in the public and private sectors in the UK.

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23 March 2021

The effect of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on our capacity means we have reviewed the existing labour market releases and will be suspending some publications.

This will protect the delivery and quality of our remaining labour market outputs as well as ensuring we can respond to new demands as a direct result of the coronavirus. More details about the impact on labour market outputs can be found in our statement.

This is an accredited National Statistic. Click for information about types of official statistics.

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Release date:
23 March 2021

Next release:
15 June 2021

1. Main points

  • Total public sector employment continued to rise in December 2020 after increasing throughout the year partly because of the response of the National Health Service (NHS) and the Civil Service to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • There were an estimated 5.60 million employees in the public sector for December 2020, an increase of 30,000 (0.5%) compared with September 2020 and an increase of 160,000 (2.9%) compared with December 2019; excluding the transfer of train operating companies to the public sector in June 2020, total PSE increased by 114,000 (2.1%) compared with December 2019.

  • Employment in central government increased to an estimated 3.39 million for December 2020, up 34,000 (1.0%) compared with September 2020 and up 118,000 (3.6%) compared with December 2019; the main contributors to this increase were the NHS, the Civil Service and local authority schools becoming academies.

  • The NHS employed an estimated 1.79 million people in December 2020, an increase of 16,000 (0.9%) compared with September 2020 and an increase of 65,000 (3.8%) compared with December 2019; the increase since the previous year was mainly impacted by the initial response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic between March and June 2020.

  • Employment in the Home Civil Service continued to increase in December 2020, partly in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; at 473,000 it was up 10,000 (2.2%) compared with September 2020 and 20,000 (4.4%) compared with December 2019; employment in the Department for Work and Pensions increased by 4,820 to meet demand for Universal Credit during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Employment in local government was an estimated 2.01 million and little changed on the previous quarter and previous year, down 3,000 (0.1%) compared with September 2020 and down 2,000 (0.1%) compared with December 2019.

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2. Public sector employment data

Public sector employment
Dataset | Released 23 March 2021
Quarterly estimates of UK and regional public sector employment, made up of central government (including Civil Service), local government and public corporations. The estimates also include an industrial breakdown.

Public sector employment time series
Dataset | Dataset ID: PSE | Released 23 March 2021
Seasonally adjusted and non-seasonally adjusted quarterly time series of UK public sector employment, containing the latest estimates.

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3. Measuring the data


For more information on how labour market data sources are affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, see the article published on 6 May 2020, which details some of the challenges that we have faced in producing estimates at this time.

An article published 11 December 2020 compares our labour market data sources and discusses some of the main differences.

Our latest data and analysis on the impact of the coronavirus on the UK economy and population are available on our dedicated coronavirus web page. This is the hub for all special coronavirus-related publications, drawing on all available data. In response to the developing coronavirus pandemic, we are working to ensure that we continue to publish economic statistics. For more information, please see COVID-19 and the production of statistics.

Impact on production of public sector employment estimates

For December 2020, the Public Sector Employment Survey received 92% response to all questionnaires, compared with 93% for September 2020. The impact on the survey response and levels of imputation and construction are not statistically significant. Survey contributor-level comments provided to us over the telephone or electronically suggested the estimates were partly affected by coronavirus planning and response.

End of EU exit transition period

As the UK enters into a new Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, the UK statistical system will continue to produce and publish our wide range of economic and social statistics and analysis. We are committed to continued alignment with the highest international statistical standards, enabling comparability both over time and internationally, and ensuring the general public, statistical users and decision-makers have the data they need to be informed.

As the shape of the UK's future statistical relationship with the EU becomes clearer over the coming period, the ONS is making preparations to assume responsibilities that as part of our membership of the EU, and during the transition period, were delegated to the statistical office of the EU, Eurostat. This includes responsibilities relating to international comparability of economic statistics, deciding what international statistical guidance to apply in the UK context and to provide further scrutiny of our statistics and sector classification decisions.

In applying international statistical standards and best practice to UK economic statistics, we will draw on the technical advice of experts in the UK and internationally, and our work will be underpinned by the UK's well-established and robust framework for independent official statistics, set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Further information on our proposals will be made available later this year.

We will continue to produce our labour market statistics in line with the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Statistics and in accordance with International Labour Organization (ILO) definitions and agreed international statistical guidance.


The main source of public sector employment (PSE) is the Quarterly Public Sector Employment Survey, which aims to obtain complete coverage of local authorities and the Civil Service, and coverage of all public bodies with 20 or more employees. The survey data are supplemented by data from external sources. Further information can be found in the Quality and Methodology Information report.

The total employment and private sector series included in this publication are derived from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). LFS responses are weighted to official 2018-based population projections on demographic trends that pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. In our Coronavirus and the impact on payroll employment article we analyse the population totals used in the LFS weighting process and state our intention to make adjustments. Rates published from the LFS remain robust; however, levels and changes in levels should be used with caution.

Full-time equivalents

While this bulletin focuses on headcount estimates of PSE, full-time equivalent estimates (based on the number of hours worked divided by the standard full-time hours) are available in the accompanying PSE datasets.

Seasonal adjustment

All PSE data time series in this release, with the exception of the regional series, are seasonally adjusted to aid interpretation. Relationships that hold in the unadjusted series do not necessarily hold for the seasonally adjusted series. For example, total PSE equals the total of all public sector industry estimates before seasonal adjustment, but this is not necessarily true after seasonal adjustment.

Reclassifications between the public and private sectors

Comparisons of public and private sector employment over time are complicated by several major reclassifications, where bodies employing large numbers of people have moved between the public and private sectors. We produce estimates of public and private sector employment excluding the effects of major reclassifications to help you understand underlying trends in employment. We publish these alongside estimates of total public and private sector employment in Tables 5, 6a and 7a of the PSE datasets.


More quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in the Public sector employment QMI.

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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Neil Hedges
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 456741