Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) on Thursday said it would cut 1,200 of the 5,000 staff from its plant in northeast England “to protect the long term viability of its manufacturing operations in Sunderland”.

Last month, Nissan cancelled six days’ production and then extended the Christmas shut-down by four days, though no production had been planned for that period.

It will now axe one shift on each production line for the final quarter of the fiscal year ending 31 March. Line one – building five- and seven-seat Qashqai SUVs – will now operate on two shifts while the second line will build the Note and Micra with just one shift.

Nissan does plan, however, to reinstate the second line two shift next April.

“Nissan has notified the local works council and the Unite union of its intention to reduce overall production headcount by around 1,200,” the automaker said in a statement.

“This figure includes 400 staff on temporary contracts, and it is intended these will not be renewed beyond January. The statutory consultation period will determine how best to adjust permanent headcount, but it is hoped that this can be managed on a voluntary basis.”

A spokesman said the firm hoped no further cuts would be necessary. “We think we’ve pitched it about right with the current 1,200,” he told just-auto.

“Obviously, in the current climate you can never say never but we firmly think and hope this will be sufficient.”

The plant has an excellent reputation for quality and productivity.

Earlier volume reducing measures had included reductions in line speed, operating an existing volume flexibility arrangement with staff, and implementing non-production training days.

“The 2009 outlook for the car market remains extremely challenging, but Nissan is committed to taking the right action now to safeguard the plant’s long term sustainability,” the automaker said.

The spokesman said the plant was now expected to build about 300,000 cars this fiscal year versus approximately 372,000 the previous year.

Nissan said Sunderland remains the UK’s largest car exporter and producer, and enjoyed a second successive record production year in 2008 – topping the 2007 calendar year by around 32,000 units.

The plant’s sixth new model since 2003 – an innovative compact vehicle – will be launched in mid-2010.

Nissan Europe manufacturing head Trevor Mann said in a statement: “Like all manufacturers, Sunderland Plant is currently operating in extraordinary circumstances not of our making. It is essential we take the right action now to ensure we are in a strong and viable position once business conditions return to normal.

“Unavoidably, this means we have had to make some very tough decisions in recent weeks. However by doing so, we are helping to safeguard our long term future which I believe is extremely positive.”

“The long term future of the plant must remain our over-riding priority. However, as always, Nissan will continue to make every effort to minimise the impact on its employees and their families.”