The health secretary Andrew Lansley has been accused of a climbdown over plans to scrap NHS Direct.

Lansley said he had “not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct”, just to phase out its telephone number. This appears to contradict statements from the Department of Health last month, including to the BBC, which said the service would be scrapped.

The DH also confirmed many of the services offered by NHS Direct “may be subsumed” by the new 111 telephone service for non-urgent needs.

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition to save NHS Direct, which provides general health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists.

The former health secretary Andy Burnham said Mr Lansley was “rowing back” from previous statements.

In a reply to Mr Burnham’s inquiries about the future of NHS Direct, Mr Lansley wrote: “I have not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct. I have announced plans to phase out the NHS Direct number.”

Later in the letter, he reiterated “we have not announced the closure of NHS Direct”. He added: “I am aware that some people are claiming, incorrectly, that NHS Direct is to be shut down.”

Today, Mr Burnham said: “Mr Lansley’s own department confirmed to the BBC that it was planning to scrap NHS Direct - he now says all he wants to change is the phone number.

“NHS Direct is a much-valued service that saves the NHS money.

“This is a welcome climbdown and great news for the staff who work for NHS Direct and all of us who rely on it. It’s an incredible victory for the campaign to save NHS Direct.

“I hope Mr Lansley will learn a hard lesson from this. Making casual off-the-cuff comments about services that people rely on is no way to run the NHS.”

Around 27,000 people a day contact NHS Direct in some form for help and advice.

The new 111 phone number is currently being trialled in the North East.

The Royal College of Nursing said last month it would be “short-sighted” of ministers to axe expert nurses who had helped save the NHS more than £200 million by dispensing advice over the phone.