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B.C. Premier John Horgan provides an update on government measures in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 26, 2020.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has lost more than 130,000 jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and the province’s Finance Minister warns of further challenging loses ahead.

But as Carole James offered the bleak forecast on Thursday, Premier John Horgan said he expects the B.C. economy will rebound as the current wave of the outbreak ends.

“Although it’s dire today, we should be hopeful for the future, that when the opportunity presents itself, British Columbians will step up and we’ll get back to a healthy position,” Mr. Horgan told a news conference on Thursday.

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Earlier in the day, Ms. James referred to data showing 132,000 jobs lost in March as part of a 7.2-per-cent increase in unemployment, charted by the new Statistics Canada labour force survey in March, from 5 per cent in February.

She told a news conference these are “early numbers” covering March 15 through 21, and the job picture will get worse.

“I do believe we’re going to see tougher numbers in the next round of statistics to come out. These are difficult times. It’s important we recognize that and provide the supports for people in businesses, who are doing everything they can to hang on through this crisis,” Ms. James told a Victoria news conference.

The Finance Minister did not provide any specific job-loss forecast.

The newly reported B.C. job losses are among a total of one million jobs lost across Canada because of the pandemic, resulting in a national 7.8-per-cent national unemployment rate.

Ms. James itemized the NDP government’s response to the economic challenges, referring to its “COVID-19 action plan,” which includes a $1,000 B.C. emergency benefit for workers and a three-month credit for affected BC Hydro customers.

A total $1.5-billion of the province’s $5-billion pandemic response program is budgeted for economic recovery, Ms. James said.

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Separately Thursday, Mr. Horgan acknowledged a “massive uptick” in unemployment, but expressed confidence that the past strength of the B.C. economy bodes well for recovery once the “all clear” comes.

Mr. Horgan said he was bullish about the retail and tech sectors being ready to surge when that shift comes.

The Premier added it is his understanding from provincial Culture Minister Lisa Beare that Hollywood studios, which finance most of the province’s multibillion-dollar feature film and TV production sector want to resume their work in the province after a North America-wide production shutdown.

But other business observers in British Columbia are less bullish than the Premier.

Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said the province’s diversified economy has helped in the recovery from past downturns. However, she said the province has a relatively high proportion of workers in food and retail sectors that have been especially hard hit during the pandemic.

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She said there could be a point of no return looming for small businesses struggling to pay rent as bills accumulate, and the government needs to expedite the distribution of relief funds to them.

She also said that the 13-week cap on layoffs before effective termination, under the rules of the Employment Standards Act, should be extended further to allow businesses flexibility without facing the costs of termination.

In a statement, the executive vice-president of the Business Council of B.C. said the province may be doing better than its Canadian counterparts with new COVID-19 cases near a peak and the most confirmed cases reported as recovered.

However, Jock Finlayson said he expects real provincial GDP to fall by a “very sharp” 7.3 per cent largely in the second quarter of 2020, and the 2020 B.C. budget, which forecast a slim operating surplus, is “out the window" given last month’s support package, looming additional measures and provincial revenues likely to “drop like a stone."

“Compared to Ontario and Quebec, more segments of the B.C. economy are still functioning, albeit not at full capacity. That suggests the economic downturn here may be a bit less severe than in some other parts of the country. But it is early days so it’s hard to have much confidence on this count. And it is certainly too early to be offering upbeat assessments of where the economy is headed,” wrote Mr. Finlayson.

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