The tentative mid-winter recovery in manufacturing output stalled unexpectedly in February, bringing to an end a modest but sustained recovery since last October.

National Statistics attributed most of a 0.2 per cent drop in output between January and February to a sudden drop in production of pharmaceuticals after two exceptionally strong months for the drug industry, setting a new all-time record in December.

Output of basic metals and metal products was also down in February, by 0.7 per cent, back where it was in November.

Against that, transport equipment staged a 1.9 per cent improvement, helping the engineering and allied industries generally to recover for a second month with a 0.8 per cent increase.

This was their strongest one-month performance since last September - though it still left them one per cent short of where they were in February last year.

Taking the latest three months together, NS, which warns that individual monthly results can be volatile, still puts manufacturing output 0.4 per cent higher, seasonally adjusted, than in September/November.

This is the first three-monthly comparison for manufacturing to show an improvement since September, though it still left output 1.7 per cent lower than in the same months a year earlier.

Over these three months, the biggest single factor was a 1.8 per cent increase in output by the chemicals and man-made fibres industries - which take in pharmaceuticals.

This was offset to some extent by a 1.4 per cent drop in output or electronic and optical equipment - including falls of 11.1 per cent in industrial process control equipment, 7.2 per cent in computers and 3.7 per cent in electronic measuring instruments.

Overall output by the production industries as a whole - including both mining and quarrying, along with North Sea oil and gas, as well as supplies of electricity, gas and water - also showed a fall of 0.2 per cent between January and February to a level 1.9 per cent below that of February last year.

This arose largely because a fire on February 16 which took the Bravo platform in the Rough gas storage field out of service.

Demand through a snap of cold weather was met with gas imports through the inter-connetor pipe from the Continent - but at sharply higher prices.

Britain's oil and gas output fell by 0.8 per cent in February after a strong recovery in January, which had recorded the highest output in any month since June last year.