Manufacturing output fell unexpectedly in February for the first time in six months, further battering the embattled sector.

Sharp falls in the output of chemicals and man- made fibres, along with a less marked decline in the paper, printing and publishing industries after a strong January, drove manufacturing output into reverse.

At the same time, National Statistics revised its first estimate for January downwards, replacing a small gain originally reported with an index figure in line with December's.

This still left February's factory output 0.9 per cent higher than in February last year. The latest three months showed a

1.1 per cent improvement year on year.

On a three-monthly comparison, output of consumer durables fell back 1.3 per cent from September/ November, but remained 1.8 per cent ahead of the same months last year.

The opposite pattern prevailed in non-durable consumer products. They were up 0.6 per cent on the three months last autumn, but 0.8 per cent down on the year before.

Output of capital goods did no more than hold steady through the winter, but at a level 3.5 per cent higher on a yearly comparison.

Intermediate goods, though, were 1.1 per cent down on the year despite a 0.5 per cent recovery in the latest three months.

The wider measure of industrial production - taking in both extractive industries and utilities - fell by 0.4 per cent in February.