NHS Direct has renewed its plans to become a foundation trust on the basis that it will win contracts to run the new NHS 111 urgent care service.

The health helpline has faced an uncertain future since the Department of Health announced in August that its 0845 service would be scrapped and replaced with a national 111 service by 2013.

Last week, Joanne Shaw, the chair of NHS Direct, wrote to health secretary Andrew Lansley to confirm that the helpline wanted to make “rapid progress” towards foundation trust status.

In the letter, Shaw says NHS Direct has played a successful part in the existing 111 pilots and expects to become involved in taking forward more 111 pilots during 2011.

The letter adds: “NHS Direct will have a sound basis on which to compete for future 111 contracts with an established track record of 111 delivery.

"On this basis, we believe NHS Direct has a reasonable prospect of winning sufficient 111 contracts to make the organisation viable as an FT from April 2013.”

NHS Direct originally announced plans to become a foundation trust in 2007 but dropped them a year later, following Lord Darzi’s Next Stage Review of the NHS for the then-Labour government.

It said the review meant it made more sense to focus on national rather than local development and as such FT status would not be so appropriate.

In last week’s letter, Shaw said the helpline had been in detailed discussion with the DH policy team and NHS East of England, its commissioner, to clarify the future funding and commissioning of services.

She added: “We understand that it is now a firm DH intention to roll out the new 111 service to cover 100% of England’s population by April 2013, with, subject to NHS Operations Board endorsement, the prospect of competition for 11 services and letting of longer term contracts for delivery from 2012-13.”

The letter adds that the DH and NHS East of England will seek to maintain a stable financial platform for NHS Direct until 2013.

This will allow it to continue to provide the 0845 service until it is no longer needed and compete for future 111 contracts on an ‘any willing provider’ basis.