Record numbers of people in Britain moved from unemployment into work in the final months before the end of the government’s furlough scheme, official figures show.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said employment levels rose in the three months to the end of September, driven by a net flow of 304,000 people moving from the unemployment register to a job as businesses scrambled to recruit after the removal of most Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

It comes amid record numbers of job vacancies of almost 1.2m as employers struggle to recruit enough staff, with severe shortages in sectors including care, warehousing and logistics.

Easing concerns over the removal of the government’s multibillion-pound wage subsidy scheme at the end of September, the unemployment rate fell by more than expected to 4.3% over the period, down from 4.5% in the three months to August.

Figures from HMRC for October, after the end of the scheme, showed an 160,000 increase in the number of employees on company payrolls from September. The ONS said it was possible that those made redundant at the end of furlough would not yet be included in the data as they worked out their notice period, but that surveys of employers suggested the numbers made redundant was likely to be small.

More than 1m jobs were still furloughed in the final weeks of the scheme, although many people had returned to working on a part-time basis while still receiving wage support from the state.

According to the latest snapshot from the ONS, more than 2 million people were claiming unemployment-related benefits in October, down from a peak of almost 2.7 million last year but still significantly higher than 1.2 million before the pandemic struck.

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It comes after the government removed a £20 uplift in universal credit from early October in the biggest overnight cut to benefits on record.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said the latest figures showed the “extraordinary success of the furlough scheme” and were evidence of the government’s plan for jobs working.

“We know how vital keeping people in good jobs is, both for them and for our economy – which is why it’s fantastic to see the unemployment rate falling for nine months in a row and record numbers of people moving into employment,” he said.