Around 82 million cloth masks procured by Japan during the coronavirus pandemic, dubbed by the public as "Abenomasks," have gone unused, a government spokesman said Wednesday, a revelation that has sparked criticism as a waste of taxpayers' money.
The number of masks that were in storage as of March account for more than half of the 140 million the government had intended to supply to the elderly and child care facilities amid a shortage of non-woven and other types of mask.
Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to distribute two cloth masks to each household in Japan last year was widely derided by the public, with many complaining the "Abenomasks" were too small and arrived too late or not at all.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told a press conference the government had finished distributing cloth masks to households but switched to an on-request basis for elderly care facilities, and that led to the surplus.
The revelation followed media reports that the Board of Audit has looked into the matter and will include it in its annual financial review in November.
According to the reports, the 82 million masks cost taxpayers about 11.5 billion yen ($101 million) and another 600 million yen to keep in storage from August 2020 to this March.
Isozaki denied that the Liberal Democratic Party-led government had missed a step by overestimating demand, saying the plan was an "effective way to prevent infections amid the supply shortage in masks last year."
"Based on the situation at the time, I think it was appropriate," he said, adding the government will "give consideration as necessary" as to how to utilize the surplus.
"Abenomask" was trending on Twitter on Wednesday with opposition parties voicing outrage at what they said was a waste of taxpayer money ahead of Sunday's general election.
"We called for the plan to be changed many times, but Prime Minister Abe saw it as necessary," tweeted Renho, a senior member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. "Now no one, including Prime Minister Abe, is wearing the Abenomask."