Nurses working for NHS Direct face yet more uncertainty as it emerged that their employer may not continue to deliver the new NHS 111 service beyond the end of next March.
The provider has also cancelled a planned reprieve of redundancies and call centre closures.
Providing the new non-emergency phone line makes up the bulk of the NHS Direct’s business after 111 replaced its own 0845 service in April. As a result, losing the NHS 111 contracts could have a catastrophic effect on its future.
Asked by Nursing Times whether NHS Direct was planning to provide the 111 service beyond the end of the current financial year, a spokeswoman said discussions “were ongoing” with commissioners including about “future delivery options past 2013-14”.
The organisation won contracts to deliver the NHS 111 service to about a third of the population. But following a disastrous launch, NHS Direct is still not handling all the 111 calls it is contracted for.
NHS England has previously said 111 contracts, which are due to last for up to five years, should be revoked if providers were not delivering an adequate service.
In an email to staff – seen by Nursing Times – NHS Direct chief executive Nick Chapman warned staff there could be “speculation” about the future of the 111 services that it currently provides.
He added: “There is a clear commitment from the board of NHS Direct, NHS England and our local commissioners that these services will continue to be provided in a safe and stable way. Each of these bodies recognise the very valuable contribution that all staff involved are making.”
About 750 NHS Direct nurses and call handlers were put at risk of redundancy at the end of last year, but the provider then found it did not have sufficient staff when it went live with the 111 service.
At the end of last month, Nursing Times revealed that NHS Direct was planning to cancel the redundancy offers and was considering keeping open up to nine call centres to make up the shortfall. But Mr Chapman’s email revealed these plans had now been shelved.
Mr Chapman told staff the board had decided it would not be “appropriate” to ask staff, including many nurses, to stay on.
An NHS Direct spokeswoman said the organisation now had “clarity over staffing requirements to meet our immediate priorities”.