Photo/Illutration Cloth masks stockpiled in a warehouse around the Tokyo area in December 2021 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Health minister Shigeyuki Goto rejected a media report that said the government will spend 1 billion yen ($8.7 million) to redistribute unused and stockpiled “Abenomasks” but would not say what the cost will be.

“It is difficult to present (the cost) as of now,” Goto said at a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee on Feb. 3. “We do not think it will cost 1 billion yen at this point of time.”

Katsuhito Nakajima, a lawmaker of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, questioned Goto about a newspaper report that said shipping expenses for the anti-virus cloth masks would reach 1 billion yen while the cost to simply dispose of the masks would be around 60 million yen.

According to the health ministry, about 80 million of the Abenomasks and other cloth masks remain in storage. It also said it has received about 370,000 requests for a total of at least 280 million free masks.

The health ministry plans to tally the exact number of masks requested and examine how to deliver them. It will start the distribution process in early March.

“The shipping cost will be calculated later,” Goto said. “It is difficult to present (the cost) as of now.”

Such demand for those masks represents quite a turnaround from when the masks were first distributed in April 2020.

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with the idea to distribute a pair of reusable cloth masks to each household to ease anxieties about mask shortages in the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The masks were ridiculed as too small or for arriving well after masks had become widely available at stores again.

The costs to procure and deliver the masks in that project came to nearly 50 billion yen.
Abe on Jan. 27 boasted about the latest requests for the masks.

“I wish that the redistribution would have been done much earlier,” he said at a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.