The future operating model of the website at the centre of the drive to extend choice in the NHS faces fresh uncertainty after the Cabinet Office blocked the renewal of a contract with the existing supplier.

HSJ has learned NHS Choices could be moved to the Health and Social Care Information Centre as an interim measure after the Cabinet Office vetoed moves to renew Capita’s contract to run the service. It could later become a social enterprise or be taken over by another supplier.

The news sparks fresh questions over the operational future of a website which could play a key role in the NHS’s programme for digital expansion.

Capita and the Department of Health’s IT division Connecting for Health have been in discussions to extend the contract, which expires in March, until November 2013.

But a risk register published by the information centre revealed the intervention of the Cabinet Office, which oversees all major government contracts.

HSJ understands negotiations are ongoing – and if Capita can provide evidence it can improve value for money it could still clinch an extended deal.   

The risk register said: “Cabinet Office will not authorise NHS Connecting for Health to renew the NHS Choices contract with Capita. Therefore there is a risk that the information centre may need a contingency involving the transfer of the service and staff from Capita.”

It said there was a need “to get a quick decision to enable a plan to be implemented in time for April 2013”.

HSJ understands the NHS Commissioning Board, which will oversee Choices from April, is in the process of devising a longer term solution. One potential option is for Choices, which has over 100 staff, to be spun out as a social enterprise.

Last May, the DH’s information strategy said Choices would become part of a “comprehensive online portal” – bringing it together with NHS Direct online, NHS 111 online content and Healthspace.

“This will act as a ‘front door’ to the best information on health and care available on the internet,” it said.

The future portal is yet to be named.

Capita took over the running of Choices in November 2008 on a three-year contract worth £60m with an option to extend for a further two years, which would have finished in November 2013. 

A DH spokesman said negotiations were continuing with a raft of bodies. He added: “We are working to identify the way forward and work through the transfer of staff if required. There will be no adverse impact to service users as a consequence of the planned changes.”

A Capita spokeswoman said the company had seen the contract extended beyond the original three years and this was evidence of its successful operation. The company would not comment further “until a formal decision has been agreed”.