NHS deputy chief executive David Flory has written to commissioners of the new NHS 111 non-emergency telephone number to remind them of their responsibilities regarding NHS Direct staff.

The advice came as Unison raised the concern that up to 500 nurses could lose their jobs as part of the switchover.

The letter, also signed by national director for improvement and efficiency Jim Easton, was sent this week.

It reminds commissioners it is “imperative” they follow Cabinet Office staff transfer guidelines –which protect terms and conditions including pensions – in moving to the new service.

The letter says national funding will not be released unless commissioners can show the guidance is being followed.

NHS 111 will use fewer nurses than NHS Direct so not all staff will be eligible to transfer. Unison today said it had calculated that 500 nurses could lose their job. It is based on plans in the North East – where the first NHS 111 contract has been awarded – to transfer just 25.9 of the 45 working for NHS Direct in the region. In addition 12 dental nurses also face losing their job as dental advice has not been commissioned as part of the NHS 111 service.

A spokeswoman for NHS Direct told HSJ althouth NHS Direct employed a total of 45 nurses in the North East, the number of whole time equivalent posts in the region was 36.2, meaning the reduction in available hours for nurses was about 28 per cent.

She said it was too early to speculate about redundancies because the majority of contracts had not yet been awarded, and NHS 111 could not predict its future workforce.

The developments also follow the decision by several private sector firms not to bid for NHS 111 contracts.

HSJ understands one of their key reasons was difficulty obtaining accurate workforce data from commissioners to be used to price their bids.

A senior source at one organisation which is bidding said the procurement process had become “more about passing the parcel on NHS Direct’s redundancy costs than commissioning a good quality service”.

The source added: “I would fairly and squarely put the blame for this with the DH. They should have had a strategic workforce plan in place.”

So far NHS Direct has been named preferred bidder for two PCT cluster areas. HSJ understands it will also be involved in providing the service in two areas that have decided not to enter procurement.

One of these is the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough primary care trust cluster, which serves the constituency of health secretary Andrew Lansley.

A spokesman for the DH said it was the responsibility of the NHS locally to “manage its workforce and the effects of the introduction of NHS 111”.

He added: “Local NHS organisations are making their decision on who will provide their local NHS 111 based upon who will give the best service for patients and the best value for money for the taxpayer.”