CANBERRA, AAP – The number of people employed in Australia slumped by 146,000 in August as a result of a number of coronavirus lockdowns across the country.

However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said the unemployment rate eased to 4.5 per cent from 4.6 per cent as a result of the participation rate of those in work or seeking employment falling to 65.2 per cent from 66 per cent.

Hours worked in all jobs in the month fell by 3.7 per cent, or 66 million hours.

ABS head of labour statistics Bjorn Jarvis said the latest data covered the first two weeks of August, which included the continued lockdown in NSW, new lockdowns in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, and a series of changes in restrictions in other parts of the country.

“The fall in the unemployment rate reflects a large fall in participation during the recent lockdowns, rather than a strengthening in labour market conditions,” Mr Jarvis said.

Economists had expected the jobless rate to rise to five per cent, while Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe warned this week that the unemployment rate could hit the “high fives” for a short period of time.

He also expects the economy will contract by at least two per cent in the September quarter, while financial market economists believe it could be as much as four per cent.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers believes much of this economic damage could have been avoided.

He will tell the Business Council of Australia in a speech on Thursday it is not about being “heroes of hindsight” – as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described it – but about “failures of foresight”.

“An inability to anticipate the obvious,” Dr Chalmers will say.

“Because amidst all these ups and downs of the last two years one thing has been certain – the recovery has always been hostage to federal government responsibilities like vaccinations and quarantine.”