Public health staff who transfer to local government next year will retain their NHS pension, it has been revealed. However, it remains uncertain whether they will keep the pension if they subsequently change jobs within public health.

In a joint letter to primary care trusts and local authorities, the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies and chief executive of the Local Government Association Carolyn Downs said staff who are members of the NHS Pension Scheme on 31 March 2013 would keep it when they transfer to councils.

However, it is not known whether public health staff who begin jobs after this 1 April 2013 or change jobs within or between councils will receive the NHS pension. The letter describes these as “more complex” cases.

An agreement between the Department of Health and councils on access to the NHS pension for public health staff had been pending until the Health Bill became law in March.

Nicola Close, chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said the news was “one piece of the jigsaw”.

“We also want clarity in relation to those who may join later and where there are promotions or people move between local authorities in years to come,” she added.

“We have lived with this lack of clarity for a long while. We are all getting rather tired of not knowing what’s happening.”

The joint letter from Dame Sally and Ms Downs said: “We are pleased to have agreed this joint position specifically in relation to transfers of staff performing public health functions from primary care trusts to local authorities. The decision provides reassurance for staff transferring, is the simplest to administer and bears the least burden on the public purse as transfer costs to the Local Government Pension Scheme will not be necessary.”

A working group made up of trade unions, the LGA, the DH, NHS Employers and government departments including the Treasury, will discuss the issue of new-starters and people transferring after 1 April.

Members of the PCT workforce who are not part of public health but transferred to non-NHS organisations do not know the fate of their pension. The DH has said the decision on public health staff does not set a “precedent for other transfers.”