Lord Howe has given “assurances” to private firms that a procurement exercise to outsource the NHS Choices website will take place before March 2014, HSJ has learned.

It has emerged that the health minister has written to the NHS Partners Network to allay fears among private providers that the website would be permanently run by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

The running of the website is being “insourced” to the Information Centre, a statutory body, after an attempt by the Department of Health to renew its contract with Capita to run the service was vetoed by the Cabinet Office. This was revealed by HSJ in February.

However, Lord Howe’s letter, sent in April but just released to HSJ, said the website would not remain under public management following its interim period with the NHS Information Centre.  

The letter, addressed to NHS Partners Network chief executive David Worskett, said: “I would like to reaffirm the reassurances I gave on the phone.

“I can confirm following discussion with my officials and NHS England that, while the precise operating model for future services may evolve,  the intention is to outsource  provision of NHS Choices.

“In terms of timescales, procurements for the new services are planned to take place before 31 March 2014 – within this financial year – which you indicated would be acceptable to Capita.”     

Mr Worskett told HSJ he “welcomed the reassurances” that NHS Choices would be re-outsourced but questioned the temporary arrangements and suggested the website could have remained with Capita until the re-tender.

He said: “It seems very odd to insource something, TUPE 130 staff to the public sector, only to outsource it nine months later.”

A DH spokesman said: “No final decisions have been taken [on the best way NHS Choices can be delivered in the future] and we are currently considering various options, including mutual models.”

HSJ understands that the transfer of staff from Capita - which has run the website under contract for several years - to the NHS Information Centre is expected to be completed by July.

HSJ revealed in May that Capita was in talks with the DH and NHS England about its future role in running the website.

In a statement to HSJ in May, Capita said it had taken “reasonable precautionary steps to protect its position [but] following positive engagement between all parties this precautionary process has been suspended”.