The 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic has led to a marked increase in positive discussion of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in political and media circles. However, we do not know whether there has been a corresponding increase in support for the policy in the public at large, or why. Here, we present two studies carried out in April and May 2020 in UK and US samples. In study 1 (n=802), we find that people express much stronger support for a UBI policy for the times of the pandemic and its aftermath than for normal times. This is largely explained by the increased importance they attach to a system that is simple and efficient to administer, and that reduces stress and anxiety in society. In study 2 (n=400), we pit UBI against an equally-generous but targeted social transfer system. We find that, for pandemic times, support shifts towards UBI. This is partially explained by a number of perceived advantages, such as simplicity of administration and suitability for a changing world. Our results illustrate how a changing social and economic situation can bring about marked shifts in policy preferences, through changes in citizen’s perceptions of what is currently important.