The number of UK apprenticeship starts in February was down by more than 10% on last year, government data shows, as companies hit by the Covid-19 crisis furloughed apprentices and made some redundant.

Figures published by the Department for Education showed that, during that month, 22,400 people started an apprenticeship, compared with 25,300 in 2019 – marking a decrease of 11.5%.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “New apprenticeship starts are falling off a cliff, and the more time the government vacillates over the Covid-19 guidance, the worse it’s going to get.”

His comments came after UK business schools hit back at controversial government plans to pull the plug on MBA apprenticeships, a move that is expected to be announced in June when the government publishes a review of the sector.

The fall in the number of apprenticeship starts reflects the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on providers’ ability to deliver teaching and qualifications at a time when the vast majority of educational centres are closed. Many apprenticeship qualifications require learners to undergo on-the-job training that typically involves face-to-face learning, which is currently prohibited under social distancing rules.

This publication understands that several prominent UK apprenticeship providers have furloughed large cohorts of staff in efforts to cut costs.