UK inflation took a surprising jump last month after three consecutive months of easing, with food and drinks costs driving the increase.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation rose to 10.4% in February, up from 10.1% the month before. The jump was unexpected, as most economists were expecting CPI to fall to 9.9%.
The surprise leap comes as vegetable shortages pushed food prices to their highest rate in more than 45 years, according to official figures. Food and non-alcoholic drinks prices rose by 18% year-on-year last month, up from 16.7% in January and the highest since August 1977.
Shortages of some salad and vegetables items, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, in recent weeks were largely behind the rocketing food inflation. The shortages were caused after extreme weather affected harvests in Spain and North Africa, while supply chain issues and high energy prices also impacted UK growers.
The price of alcohol in pubs and restaurants also drove up inflation following discounting in January, the ONS said. Inflation overall in restaurants and cafes stood at 11.4% last month, up from 9.4% in January and the highest since December 1991.
ONS chief economist Grant Fitzner explained: “Inflation ticked up in February, mainly driven by rising alcohol prices in pubs and restaurants following discounting in January.
“Food and non-alcoholic drink prices rose to their highest rate in over 45 years with particular increases for some salad and vegetable items as high energy costs and bad weather across parts of Europe led to shortages and rationing.
“These were partially offset by falls in the cost of motor fuel, where the annual inflation rate has eased for seven consecutive months.”
Responding to the latest figures, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said that “falling inflation isn’t inevitable” and the UK needs to “stick to our plan to halve it this year”.
He said: “We recognise just how tough things are for families across the country, so as we work towards getting inflation under control we will help families with cost-of-living support worth £3,300 on average per household this year.”
Meanwhile, Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves slammed the government for using the spring Budget to “hand £1 billion” to the country’s highest earner while households are still battling the rising living costs.
She said: “The reality is that under this Tory government, families are feeling worse off and nothing is working better than it did 13 years ago. The cost-of-living crisis is still biting hard and taxes are rising, yet the government chose to use the Budget to hand a £1 billion bung to the top 1%.
“Labour will stand with working people and with our mission to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, make families across every part of our country feel better off.”
The data adds to the headache for the Bank of England ahead of its decision on interest rates on Thursday (23 March). Some experts have been predicting the Bank would hold off from raising rates further due to the volatility of the markets, but the latest inflation figure will likely complicate the decision.
Lead economist at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said despite inflation rising in February, the outlook for the months ahead “is looking more benign.
Alpesh Paleja added: “While we expect inflation to fall back over this year, the firmness in domestic price pressures is something that the Bank of England will be keeping a close eye on. And despite further falls over the coming months, this year will still be a high-inflation environment for both households and businesses.”
Elswhere, head of the Centre for Economic Justice at IPPR Dr George Dibb said February’s surprise increase in inflation “will raise more concerns for households whose budgets are already stretched to their limits”.
He added: “With some of the biggest contributions to rising prices coming from essentials like food, drinks and clothing most households will find that their pay packet doesn’t stretch as far.
“From an economics perspective, all eyes now turn to tomorrow’s announcement from the Bank of England’s interest rate setters. Rising ‘core’ inflation will raise concerns amongst central bankers that inflation is increasingly embedded. However, it’s important to note that all the major forecasters are expecting a significant drop in inflation - even deflation - later in the year.”