Retaining talented primary care trust and strategic health authority mangers in the system is a “top priority”, the Department of Health’s new permanent secretary has said.

Speaking at a Local Government Association conference on the role of councils in the new health system Una O’Brien said that while the DH was serious about devolving power it also wanted to keep the best managers when PCTs and SHAs were abolished.

Ms O’Brien said: “There are issues to do with staff from the SHAs and PCTs, which employ tens of thousands of people, some of whom do fantastic work in public health. What happens to these people, so that we do not lose their skills in the new system, is something that we in the Department of Health are working very hard on as a priority.”

Asked to clarify this in the question and answer session that followed, she said: “I was vague about where those valuable people from the SHAs and PCTs will go because it hasn’t all been worked out but we are working very hard on it.

She said: “For the individuals involved these are obviously massively big issues and we need to deal with it sensitively. We are keen to work through how we keep the skills and the best people whilst letting people locally decide on the structures and other arrangements.

She added: “There are TUPE issues and we still are serious about the ambition to be permissive about local government to decide for themselves how they spend their money. They may want to outsource functions to the third sector or the private sector and we want them to be able to do that and not direct them to keep everything in house in the old way.”

Ms O’Brien also announced that “early implementers” of the local government health and wellbeing boards, which will oversee local public health issues and co-ordinate activity with trusts and consortia, will be invited to begin work within weeks.

The piloting of the system follows the launch of “pathfinder” GP consortia as the government seeks to maintain the momentum of its radical changes to the NHS.